When it comes to apparitions, spectres and ghosts, the only thing that is predictable is their unpredictability.
While creepy castles and gothic mansions make for suitably moody sets for Hollywood fiction, the truth is that paranormal encounters can happen almost anyplace and anytime. Sometimes it may be a one-time singular occurrence; at other times a ghost may make its presence known almost daily, like clockwork. Similarly, almost any place can be host to a haunting. Obviously, old buildings that have a long and dolorous history are likely candidates, but even a brand new home can be the site of a paranormal event or haunting.
Such was the case one Yuletide in the village of Monkton Heathfield, located outside the town of Taunton in Somerset, England. In was close to Christmas, 1923, when a certain Mr. Gardiner, a construction contractor was bedeviled by a series of unexplained incidents in his brand new home. Monkton is a small but venerable village, named after the monks of Glastonbury Abbey, whose estates the village once resided in.
The trouble began about a week before Christmas, when Gardiner heard a strange noise, quickly followed by a blow to the back of the head. The object which struck him was an orange, which moments before had been in a bowl on a nearby dresser. No one else was present to blame the assault on the contractor, which was peculiar, since oranges don’t have legs to move about with.
Soon other inanimate objects also started to become quite animated. A chair suddenly jumped from the floor onto a table. A watch-box sitting on a table in the kitchen rose into the air and came crashing down with a thud. Then a pair of boots emerged backwards from the cupboard where they were stored and several books flew from the bookshelf where they were lodged and flew across the room. Nor was mid-day supper exempt from such happenings; while seated for the repast Father and son saw their knives move from one end of the table to the other and the pepperbox did the cake-walk in front of them. The climax to these uncanny events occurred when, in front of a room full of witnesses, a lamp arose from the table and gracefully glide onto the kitchen floor.
The frequency and oddity of happenings inside the Gardener household became such that Mr. Gardener and his son were forced to move out of their household just before Christmas. Whatever spirit or entity was active in the new house was left in possession of the home for the holidays. Whether the Gardeners ever were able to reclaim their domicile from the unnamed poltergeist is not recorded.
It was the day after Christmas, which in England is referred to as Boxing Day, when the Acting Vicar of St. Mary’s, a stately old church in the small hamlet of East Rudham, King’s Lynn, Norfolk, had a most unusual encounter. It was so singular that the divine saw fit to report it to the local newspaper at the time.
The Rev R. Brock, was serving as Acting Vicar while the regular Vicar of the parish, the Reverend Dr. Astley, was away on a trip to Algeria with his wife. It was about tea-time and the Reverend Brock was relaxing in the vicarage, steeping in the holiday spirit, no doubt, when the housekeeper rushed in, all in a huff.
“Come and see Dr. Astley!” she said.
“See Dr. Astley?” he said.
“Yes, see Dr. Astley!” she replied.
The housekeeper, obviously disturbed, led the acing vicar into the study and bade him look out the window. Reverend Brock scanned the lawn without and saw nothing unusual, at which the housekeeper exclaimed,
“You are looking in the wrong direction! Look there,” pointing over to a wall outside which contained an alcove.
Gazing over in that direction, the acting vicar did indeed see something, although at first the full import of it did not strike him. He saw a “full presentment” of a clergyman with a Cuddesdon collar gleaming white in the gathering gloom. Reverend Brock turned about to look behind, remarking to the housekeeper, “it must be a reflection of myself,” but no sooner had he said so than he realized that that was impossible, since there was no manner in which his image could have been so reflected outside.
The vision from outside the study window was of a clergyman sitting at a table or desk with books before him. The acting vicar also observed that the person sitting there had a gold chain across his waistcoat—exactly how the Reverend Astley was known to wear his watch and chain. The young divine looked through the window several times, but the presentiment (for that’s what he took it to be) did not move. Then he went outside to get a better look at the figure against the wall. As he did so, the housekeeper informed him that that spot was where Reverend Astley was want to reside and read in the summertime. Both the Acting Vicar and the housekeeper knew that the apparition they were witnessing could not possibly be the vicar—since Dr. Astley and his wife had left for Algeria on December 10th and were still there, to the best of anyone’s knowledge.
The mysterious vision finally disappeared, but the mystery of its appearance that Yuletide afternoon only deepened when the parish community learned some time later that the Vicar and his wife died in a railroad accident in Algeria just about the same time as the vision.
These days the hamlet of East Rudham is even smaller than in the late vicar’s day, the railroad line having long since ceased its service to the village. If there is any answer to be found to the singular Vicar’s Presentiment of 1908, perhaps the village elders who hold court daily at the Cat and Fiddle near the village green may provide some solution. It would, at least, provide worthy conversation on a winter’s day. Merry Christmas all ye Christmas spirits!
The venerable village of Calverley sits midway between Leeds and Bradford in England, a quaint and thoroughly unremarkable community, whose main claim to lesser fame is Calverley Hall. The village also boasts an ancient church with adjacent burial ground, graced with equally old yew trees, whose branches cast strange shadows on moonlit nights, and with a forsaken looking wood visible nearby and the Yorkshire Moors not far beyond.
Calverly Hall was at one time the residence of Sir Hugh Calverley, a gentleman of some distinction during the reign of good King James until, that is, his wife and two children were found most horribly murdered. The motive for the murders has long been lost to history; but suspicion of the crime immediately fell on Sir Hugh and he was taken to York, there to extract a confession from him.
Sir Hugh was locked up in York Castle and there the inquisitor sought to force him to admit his crime by pressing him. This manner of interrogation involved putting a board on one’s chest and then applying ever heavier stones on top, until the pain forced an admission of guilt. Sir Hugh never admitted to the crime. Instead he died under interrogation from the pressing.
Over the years since his execution, tales of sighting his ghost had come down to the folk of Calverley, but none had themselves seen his shade about the village in recent times. All thought the spectre of Sir Hugh was long put to rest. Until, that is, one night just before Christmas in 1904.
One Sunday night a man from the town of Horsforth was passing by the Calverley churchyard when he heard weird sounds coming from the direction of the church’s graveyard. Suddenly there was a flash of bright light, soon followed by a floating apparition, almost like a mist but having the distinct form of a man. It floated past the man and did him no harm; yet its mere sight was terrifying to behold. The man was on foot and had nowhere to run and stood frozen with shock. Then, as soon as it had begun, the apparition disappeared.
The next day the Horsforth man related his experience to a friend, who knew something of the lore of Calverley. It was only then that the man learned the tale of the ghost of Sir Hugh Calverley, whose shade could find no peace for the guilt of the crime laid on him.
Was Sir Hugh wandering with the load of his sins keeping him earthbound? Or was he innocent of the horrible crime and seeking some living soul to exonerate him after all those centuries? We may never know. Should you encounter his restless shade on some Yuletide night, perhaps you might inquire of his restless shade–if you dare.
As all no doubt are aware, telling ghost stories at Yuletide is an ancient tradition which we have inherited from England. The fact is that ghosts seem oft to make their presence felt at Christmas.
Some say it is because our thoughts harken back to loved ones no longer with us; others aver that it is because the holiday coincides with the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year when the worlds of the living and the dead are closest. Or perhaps it is simply because, like old Uncle Scrooge, we all have had too much mince meat and hot toddies and our senses play tricks on us.
Regardless, ghosts do seem to cluster close around the season—perhaps even more so than at Halloween.
For example the Queen’s residence at Sandringham House in Norfolk, England, has long known to experience poltergeist activity that begins activity from Christmas Eve, as well as other fey encounters. The estate has been occupied since the Elizabethan era, but it was in 1771 that architect Cornish Henley cleared the site to build Sandringham Hall. The hall was modified during the 19th century by Charles Spencer Cowper, a stepson of Lord Palmerston, who added an elaborate porch and conservatory. Today it is the private domain of Queen Elizabeth II and not considered public Crown property, as many royal residences are.
The spectral activity at Sandringham House manifests strongly in the servants quarters and the unseen spirits would seem to have a particular dislike for Christmas cards. The cards are frequently scattered, thrown and generally moved around. In addition, blankets are pulled off of beds and something very creepy breathes down the necks of the maids who serve the royal family.
There are old parts of the mansion, little used, that nobody wishes to go alone in. According to one account, Prince Charles and his valet once went exploring in an old wing of the palatial building in search of old prints. They suddenly both felt very cold and had the feeling that somebody—or something—was following them. Neither saw anything, but the experience was quite unnerving.
The library of the House is regarded as one of the most haunted rooms of the rambling manse. A napping servant was once awakened to the sight of books flying off the shelves. The hands on an old clock in the room often move by themselves as well.
The chamber maids believe that the most frightening spot in the house is the Sergeant Footman’s corridor on the second floor. They are so terrified of this part of the palace that they only clean that area of Sandringham in pairs or groups. According to reports, light switches are turned on and off, footsteps are heard walking down the corridor, and doors are heard opening and closing. They also report hearing a terrifying noise like a wheezing sound that, “resembles a huge, grotesque lung breathing in and out.”
With as long a history as Sandringham House has had, it is believed a number of ghosts haunt the building at Christmas. Members of the royal family died there in the nineteenth century and more recently one of Queen Elizabeth’s loyal retainers, Tony Jarred, the Queen’s favorite steward, died there in the cellar in 1996. Rumor has it that the Queen herself has seen Jarred at Sandringham, although as usual with the Royal Family, no one will speak publicly about it. Nor is Jarred the only ghost Her Majesty has seen in her long life.
The haunting of Sandringham is reported to begin on Christmas Eve and endures for about six to seven weeks, after which the spirits seem to become dormant until the next Yuletide. This year should be especially interesting, since Kate Middleton will be spending her first Christmas at Sandringham House. Bonny Kate has been duly informed about the Christmas ghosts there and also been advised to not make any jokes about ghosts to the Queen, who apparently takes her royal hauntings quite seriously.
In addition to being the home of Edgar Cayce, the “Sleeping Prophet,” Hopkinsville’s next biggest claim to fame is as the location of the Great Goblin Encounter, also known as Kelly Green Men Case.
For the record, the creatures were not KellyGreen in color. Rather, Kelly is the rural community just outside of Hopkinsville where the close encounter occurred. That much everyone can agree on; just about everything else about the incident has been disputed ever since.
The incident occurred in 1955 and to this day ranks as one of the best documented—and scariest—close encounters in UFOlogy. Seven persons from two farm families witnessed the events and their accounts, examined and cross-examined repeatedly over the years, have stood up to withering criticism and scorn and remain remarkably consistent.
On the evening of August 21, 1955, Billy Ray Taylor of Pennsylvania was visiting the Sutton family in the rural community of Kelly, in Christian County outside of Hopkinsville, Kentucky. As the house had no indoor plumbing, around 7pm Billy Ray went outside to the pump to get some water. It was at this point that he observed strange multi-colored lights to the west, which he interpreted as a disc shaped craft of some sort.
Billy Ray ran into the house all excited like and told the folks inside he had seen a flying saucer. The Suttons scoffed at his sighting, telling him he must have seen a shooting star or some such.
About an hour later, the folks inside the house began to hear eerie and unexplained sounds outside. The Sutton’s dog began barking wildly, as if there were strangers lurking about; then the dog suddenly became terrified and quickly ran under the house, where it remained for the duration.
Billy Ray and the family patriarch, Elmer “Lucky” Sutton, grabbed some guns and went outside to investigate. There they saw a strange creature coming at them from a line of trees.
When it got within about twenty feet, they let loose a volley, one of which was a twelve gauge and the other a 22 cal. varmint gun. The creature flipped over and then ran into the darkness; the boys were sure they’d hit it.
Stepping off the porch, they went in search of the creature, when they spied another one sitting on an awning. Again they fired and knocked it off the roof. But as before, although they were sure they had scored a direct hit, the being seemed unharmed. A bit shaken by the encounter, the duo went back into the house.
A few minutes later, Lucky’s brother, J. C. Sutton, saw another creature peering into the house through a window. J.C. and Solomon, another kin, fired through the window at them, seemingly to no effect.
For the next several hours the little green men played whack a mole with the Taylors and Suttons, popping up at windows and doors, with the two clans replying with hot lead.
Whenever they scored a hit, they heard a hollow rattling sound, like banging around in a metal drum. The creatures also seemed to float off the ground at times, rather than walk.
Finally, the family matriarch, Grandma Lankford, counseled the boys to stop shooting at the creatures; not only did it not seem to have any effect, but the creatures did not seem to mean any harm to the humans.
Because the small children were badly frightened, around 11pm the group made a break from the house and got into their cars, making it to the Hopkinsville Police Department around 11:30pm, where they filed a report.
Police Chief Russell Greenwell, in writing up his police report, noted that the group were visibly shaken by the experience beyond reason. The Suttons, he noted, were not folks easily upset and not prone to filing complaints to the police; without weighing in on the accuracy of their account, he concluded that “something frightened them, something beyond their comprehension.” The witnesses were also judged not to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time.
Elsewhere in Christian County, around 11pm a state trooper reported seeing “unusual meteor-like objects” flying overhead, with a sound “like artillery fire” emanating from them.
Upon investigating the scene of the incident,police officers themselves witnessed strange lights in the sky and in the nearby woods (although later, some would refuse to talk openly about it).
To their surprise, the officers found that nearby neighbors were also terrified and reported seeing the same strange lights in the sky, and strange sounds, at their homesteads and diners at the local Shady Oaks restaurant, also reported seeing the strange lights in the sky. .
The Hopkinsville police investigating the farmstead that night, found numerous bullet holes and hundreds of spent shells. They found a luminous patch of unknown substance on one of the fences where a creature had been shot but neglected to collect a sample for testing. Moreover, in the distance a green light was seen that night.
When the police left around two am, the green men returned and kept poking around the farmhouse until close to dawn. They were never seen again.
In the days and weeks that followed, the incident garnered national publicity and scores of curiosity seekers came visiting, some in awe, many to scoff.
People accused the witnesses of being drunk or of being liars. The usual mob of professional debunkers fabricated their well-worn explanations to deny what had happened.
At first the Suttons freely told the press and others willing to listen of their harrowing experience. Eventually, however, the ridicule and criticism by self-anointed experts caused the family to refuse to discuss their encounter with outsiders.
Apparently military types visited the farm to investigate the close encounter, but the Air Force denies ever visiting the Sutton farmstead. Curiously, though they claim never to have been there, Project Blue Book listed the case as a hoax without comment.
It is curious that Project Blue Book could make that judgment if, as they say, they never investigated it. It should be noted, however, that Hopkinsville is not far from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, which, while not an Air Force base, is not only home to the 101st Airborne Division, but also to various Special Operations units. Some of these special ops units are known, but others remain top secret–officially, they don’t exist. What Special Ops units were operating there in 1955 is not known.
In 1957, one Air Force spokesmen theorized that the creatures were just some circus monkeys, painted silver, who’d escaped–which was perhaps the least believable of all the vain attempts to rationalize away the event.
Because of the creatures green color, they began to be referred to as “Goblins” by some in the media. Over time the cynics grew tired of heaping ridicule on the community and its close encounter, and, not being able to grab media attention with their visits, ceased plaguing the community.
For their part, the citizens of Hopkinsville began to embrace the incident as part of their local lore. The “Little Green Men” Days Festival is held at annually and has become a major event.
An artist’s impressions of these “Green Goblins” is even said to have inspired one of the many Pokeman anime characters.
While people may celebrate the event in song and story, to Lucky Sutton and his family it was serious business and remained so for the rest of their lives.
As his daughter related as an adult, “He never cracked a smile when he told the story because it happened to him and there wasn’t nothing funny about it. He got pale and you could see it in his eyes. He was scared to death.”
EDGAR CAYCE, The Sleeping Prophet of Hopkinsville, KY
I discussed the Bell Witch extensively in Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Groundand also a bit more about her and other Tennessee witches in Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee, so I won’t chew my cud twice on that score—at least not here. However, if you are visiting Adams to get in touch with ol’ Kate, you might want to keep going to visit another town with a reputation for the uncanny and paranormal: Hopkinsville, Kentucky.
If you take Highway 41 up the road apiece beyond Adams, you will soon cross the Tuck-asee state line and come to Hopkinsville, Kentucky, a place equally worthy of note for those who derive joy in being scared out of their wits by paranormal phenomena and other high strangeness.
Hopkinsville, while considerably more urban in character than Adams, is still a quiet town most times and hardly a place one would peg as the epicenter of unexplained events or strangely gifted people. Yet on both counts Hopkinsville can hold its own with places more famous or more populous. For one thing, it is the home of Edgar Cayce, world renown as the “Sleeping Prophet.” Edgar Cayce was an unlikely candidate for notoriety, at least to start with. Born in 1877, in Beverly, just a stone’s throw south of Hopkinsville and his father would knock him about because he was such a poor student in school. When he was very young and wandering in the woods he claimed to see “little folk” cavorting about and occasionally spotted his dead grandfather. He knew grandpa was dead because he could see through him.
At the age of ten he was taken to church and from that time on diligently began reading the Bible. Then, at the age of twelve one day an angel appeared to him in a woodland shack as he was doing his daily Bible reading. The angel told him his prayers would be answered and asked him what he wanted. Cayce allegedly replied that most of all he wanted to be helpful to others, especially sick children. On advice of this same mysterious “lady” he found that if he slept on a school textbook, he would absorb all its knowledge while he slept and he soon became an exceptional student.
By 1892 Cayce was giving “readings” in his sleep relating to people’s health issues, although he tried to support himself with a number of day jobs. Although he never charged for a “reading” at one of his sleep sessions, eventually followers donated enough money to support Cayce that he could concentrate on his readings, which began to expand from health issues in to metaphysics and prophesy.
He moved to Selma, Alabama from 1912 to 1925 and from then to his death in 1945 lived in Virginia Beach, but he was buried in his hometown of Hopkinsville. Edgar Cayce, unlike many mediums, was not dogmatic about his readings and advised people to accept them only to the extent they benefitted from them; likewise he always advised to test them against real world results. When awake, Cayce claimed no conscious memory of what he had said or why he said it. His utterings remain closely studied to this day and some say they have proven remarkably accurate.
Hopkinsville is in the heart of the Pennyrile region of southern Kentucky—or Pennyroyal as some more refined folk prefer to call it—and there is available for traveler’s a “Edgar Cayce Cell Phone Tour” of Hopkinsville, while the Pennyroyal Area Museum has devoted a good part of its exhibition space to Cayce and artifacts relating to him.
Hopkinsville, being part of Bell Witch Country, also celebrates the Old Girl in October every year. There is also the annual Edgar Cayce Hometown Seminar, usually held in March, which celebrates Cayce’s life and readings.
Of all the many haunted buildings in downtown Nashville, surely one of the most haunted is Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge! At 422 Broadway, it’s smoke-stained walls and beer-stained floors have seen the greats of Country Music pass through its swangin doors–not to mention a few Rock stars as well.
Behind the bar, its back door opens onto an ally which faces the old stage door to the Ryman Auditorium. In the old days, when the Grand Ole Opy’s home was the Ryman, the now legendary stars of County would toddle across the alley to Tootsie’s to pull back a few brews in between sets. Sometimes when in their cups they would get up on the stage of Tootsie’s and play for free, and by all accounts, their performance on the stage of Tootsie’s was far better than what you would see on the straight-laced stage of the Opry. In those days they wouldn’t even allow drums or brass on stage to back up the performers. Sometimes, the old Country greats had one too many a drink and never made it back to the Opry for a second set.
The old owner of the bar, Tootsie herself, was a tough old broad, but with a heart of gold and she was known to give perspiring musicians a handout and a hand when they needed one. She is long gone and so are the old legends of Country—but not their ghosts.
In the hustle and bustle of the crowded bar you might never notice when the odd ghost or two is also listening in to the show. But sometimes a cold draft of air will fill the air and a door open or close on its own. Perhaps it is Hank Williams Sr. trying to make it back to the stage of the old Opry; or one of a dozen other spectral singers whose shades still dwell there: hard to say. The alley out back has also been witness to apparitions, seen passing back and for between the Ryman and Tootsies.
Upstairs, where Willie Nelson once camped out, thanks to Tootsie’s good graces, other ghosts have sometimes been reported as well. All told, living or dead, the spirit of Country Music is very much in evidence at Tootsies.
Although recent transplants to Middle Tennessee are only dimly aware of it, the Cumberland Valley and its surrounds were much fought over during the Civil War. Although that is not the origin of the phrase, this section of the South amply earned its moniker The Dark and Bloody Ground during the Late Unpleasantness. Many an old house is home to a resident ghost or two who date back to the dark days of the war. The causes of their continued residence on the mortal plain may differ, but as often as not it is due to their violent or untimely death, being cut down in the prime of life, often with great pain and the awareness they will never to see their loved ones again. Sometimes that agony and anguish are all that remain.
Such, it seems, is the case with Carnton Mansion, the grand home sitting on the southeastern outskirts of Franklin, Tennessee. The very name of the manse is suggestive of death, for in ancient Celtic tradition, a cairn or carn was a place where a warrior would be buried who had died with honor in battle. During the Civil War, late one Autumn day, the mansion would earn its name, a reputation that endures to the present day.
After the fall of Atlanta, Sherman planned his next move; ignoring the still viable Confederate Army of Tennessee, he would conduct a scorched earth campaign across Georgia, destroying everything in his path. Basically, it was an act of terrorism, designed to cow the white civilian population of the South into submission and break their will to resist. The Rebel army, now under General John Bell Hood, at first fenced with Sherman, attacking his rear and threatening his long supply line heading back northward towards Nashville. Then, when Sherman began marching south, Hood began marching north; a bold move not only to draw Sherman’s army after him but also to seize the mass of supplies stockpiled in the strategic city of Nashville; from there he could threaten many other places further north. It was a bold strategy and whatever historians may say about General Hood, he never lacked for either courage or boldness: “all lion” is how one postwar writer characterized him.
A small Union army was deployed to slow Hood as he marched northwards, to give time for the Yankees to gather more troops to defend Nashville. General John Schofield, a classmate of Hood’s from West Point days, was placed in charge of this Yankee force and basically his task was to hold the lion’s tail without being devoured. At Columbia, then Springhill and finally at Franklin, Schofield’s men conducted a fighting retreat. While most historians portray the Autumn Campaign as a done deal and that a Southern defeat was inevitable, in truth it was a very near thing. Had circumstances just been a little different at any point; had orders been obeyed, had the Yankees marched or fought just a little less heroicly; had one Yankee brigadier not disobeyed orders, or some Rebel pickets not been quite so fatigued—at any point just a feather-weight of difference in the chain of circumstance–and we would be celebrating John Bell Hood as a brilliant commander and victor. But that was not to be.
Others have chronicled the Autumn Campaign in great length; we needn’t go into it here. Our concern is with the aftermath. On the afternoon and evening of November 30, 1864, the two armies clashed on the outskirts of Franklin, Tennessee. Both sides fought and bled and died with uncommon courage, and by the early hours of the following morning the blood-soaked fields of Franklin found the Confederates in possession of the terrain. It was a Pyrric victory, however, for Hood’s army was decimated in the process: five generals, twenty colonels and thousands dead or grievously wounded, incapable of combat—all to fight the Yankee rearguard.
Even before the battle was over, however, the wounded began to make their way to Carnton Mansion, on the eastern flank of the battlefield. All through the night and on into the next day, the wounded and dead were brought in a steady stream to the stately antebellum mansion. The owner of the home, Randall McGavock, had served in the Confederate army but accepted a parole to look after his family and was a non-combatant; of course that did not prevent him from opening his home to the wounded.
By the following day, the dead were being piled in Carnton’s yard like cordwood; the back porch held the bodies of no less than five generals, while the moans of the suffering could be heard everywhere. For the dead and dying at Carnton, the victory at Franklin did not seem so glorious.
In time, the McGavock’s home was cleaned of the awful carnage and the blood—where it would go away. In one room that had served as the operating room for surgeons, try as they might, they could not wash or bleach the blood from the floorboards; the stains always came back and cannot be erased. They linger there to this day. There were other things that linger about Carnton as well; some of a spectral nature.
Inside the mansion, several spirits have been detected by successive occupants of the mansion and more recently by visitors as well. On the second floor, for example, a presence some called “the general” could be felt and occasionally seen. In the graveyard, even to this day, visitors sometimes spot a man in Confederate garb. Other spectres have been observed elsewhere in the mansion or on the surrounding grounds. Many are the eyewitness accounts that recount encounters with the ghosts of Carnton. Some of these apparitions are well known; others just passing shades, as anonymous as many of the graves on the grounds.
Many speculate about the sightings reported at Carnton; a few doubt them, most do not. What is certain, however, is that for many of the men who fought and died at Franklin on November 30, the Battle of Franklin will never be over.
Around about Halloween it is not unusual to see images of alluring females all bedecked in black, slinky and seductive apparitions in witch’s costumes. That is one modern stereotype; the other, older one, is of an ugly, cock-eyed old crone with crooked nose and hairy mole leering out with a toothless smile.
The truth is that neither of these stereotypes is true, at least not of real witches—and make no mistake, real witches have existed and for aught I know still do—in the mountains of Tennessee. I go into this in much greater depth in Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, and Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee, so for more on this and similar phenoms, go there if you dare.
Of course, the curious thing has always been that there were always far more folk who would own up to being witch-hunters (or ‘witch-doctors”) than those who would actually own up to being a witch. And especially today, if we are talking about beings with genuine supernatural powers, if they proudly proclaim themselves a witch in public, the likelihood is that they are not.
Still, it was not so long ago in East Tennessee that folks knew very well who in their community was, and was not, a witch. And for the most part they were neither ugly nor sexy, nor any kind of neo-pagan. But what they all had in common was that they were feared and avoided—unless you needed them for something.
Before the creation of Smoky Mountain National Forest, that multi-county region it covered was home to several mountain communities that now are no more. The area back in the 1930’s was not quite so backward as Yankee journalists of the day might have proclaimed, but even by the standards of early twentieth century South, folk up there were land rich but dirt poor.
Of course, if you raised your own crops and had herds of livestock, and had a gun and a fishing rod, there was always food on the table and no one starved. As far as modern amenities went, such as indoor plumbing or electricity, well, that was something city folks had, not mountain folk.
Up around that part of the Smokies once lived a lady later known as “Witch McGaha.” It was not her Christian name, of course; but then she was not the church-going type anyhow. One thing that set folk wise to Witch McGaha was that she was continually trying to borrow things from neighbors.
It was not as though she needed anything; but, you see, if a witch can borrow three things from you, then sure as spit she can put you under her spell. Conversely, Witch McGaha would never, never lend anybody anything, not even to members of her own family. Many tales are told about her and her powers, but one will suffice for now
One fall, her own blood kin, sister Nance McGaha, wanted some nice juicy apples from her sister’s orchard. But Witch McGaha would have none of it. Not one apple would she loan or give. Nance even got her mother to talk to her older sister to loan her some apples until her own orchard came into its own, all to no avail.
Nance, too willful for her own good, snuck onto her sister’s orchard and started plucking the shiny red fruit off’n the trees and putting them into a large tote sack.
Not able to wait till she got home, she bit into one. It was red, and ripe and oh so juicy, just bursting with the sweetness of Autumn in the mountains.
When she had picked her full, Nance started off for home, thinking her sister would be none the wiser. She was dead wrong.
As she walked along the mountain trail, Nance felt a small tug on the hem of her dress; then another and another. What was that tugging?
She looked down. Nance found a pack of bushy tailed grey squirrels had formed a ring around her and were giving her angry looks as the insistently tugged on her dress.
Nance began to walk faster, but as she did even more squirrels appeared. They were all angry and intent on stopping her progress.
Soon she broke into a run, dropping the sack now in her haste to escape, but the growing horde of squirrels were keeping pace and would not let up their assault.
Now they were scratching and biting and clawing at every part of Nance’s body and no matter how fast she ran they all held on and kept attacking her.
By the time Nance reached the threshold of her house she was all bloody and her dress in tatters. Before she could cross the threshold of home where a broom was lain across it to ward off evil, Nance McGaha keeled over, dead.
A common feature of traditional Appalachian life has always been the local Wise Woman, a person who had knowledge of herbs, potions and poultices, who also knew how to conjur spells. Their craft was in part derived from Ireland and Scotland, where Wise Women were a common occurrence; partly they also learned from the local tribes’ medicine women about healing remedies and about the local spirits that might be of benefit; and perhaps too, they picked up knowledge of spells and herb magic from those few Negro practitioners of Hoodoo that dwelt in the mountain regions.
In nineteenth century North Carolina, one such Wise Woman was especially famous, called “Mammy Wise” (actually her name was Weiss) and while not particularly wicked, she was a particularly talented Wise Woman.
She claimed to have “spelt” the Civil War (she always regretted that); she could also divine out who a thief was in the community and was Mammy Wise was the first person one resorted to when it came to cooking up a love potion.
Mammy Wise was respected and honored on that side of the mountains. Still, no one with any sense ever tried to get on her bad side, for they knew what she could do if her ire was raised.
There were—are—other Wise Women in the high mountains, although these days they are far more discreet. Society may be more tolerant these days of folk who claim to be witches, but those with real power are wise enough to say little and mind their business—especially when their business is the Dark Art.
During the autumn of 1864, Captain Tod Carter was coming home to Franklin. He was coming home to stay.
Although Thanksgiving as we know it originated with Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation of 1863, late November had long been the season of Harvest Home, of family and friends returning to gather around the hearth. November 30 was a homecoming of sorts; long distant fathers, brothers and sons were returning to Franklin; but it was not to visit loved ones and enjoy a bountiful meal and celebrate a successful harvest; it was to engage in a deadly and ultimately fruitless duel with their mortal foes. It would indeed end with loved ones seeing their returning family members–lying dead on the battlefield or slowing dying of their wounds.
Fountain Branch Carter, the family patriarch, was still alive in 1864 to see the war come to his door.
The first Yankee troops started filing past the Carter family home…