Tall Betsy, Bradley County’s Lady in Black

Tall Betsy, Cleveland, Tennessee's resident spook, comes on Halloween to deliver tricks and treats.
Tall Betsy, Cleveland, Tennessee’s resident spook, comes on Halloween to deliver tricks and treats.

In the pages of Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, I have previously chronicled some high strangeness originating from the area near Cleveland, Tennessee, as well as a rather scary apparition from East Tennessee referred to as The Lady in Black.  In Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee, I delved even more deeply into the supernatural stirrings of the Mid-South.  Even with the ghost stories and mysteries which I did not chronicle in those books, I had assumed I had researched just about every paranormal phenomenon and tale there was to known about this region; my file cabinets are bulging with accounts and my computer files contain even more.  Well, I was wrong, for until just recently, I had never heard of Bradley County’s favorite apparition, Tall Betsy.

While most folks outside of Cleveland have never heard about Tall Betsy, anyone who grew up in or around the East Tennessee city can give you an earful about this unusual hobgoblin.  An online search of the usual ghost-hunter websites and directories will generally give you a blank; but that is not to say she is not real–or as real as any immaterial being can be.

I stumbled across Tall Betsy through one of my son’s friends who grew up in Cleveland.  My son Bubba knows just about everyone in Sumner County and his friend, who now hails from here, spent most of his boyhood in Bradley County.  So, knowing my interest in all things weird and wonderful relating to the South, Bubba’s friend regaled me with what he knew of Tall Betsy.  The game afoot, I dug deeper and came up with more on this mysterious apparition and what passes for the facts about her—admittedly not much.

Unlike TV ghost hunters, who go armed with all sorts of high tech gear and flashlights glued to their faces and generally end up scaring themselves, I resort to low tech methods to research ghost stories: word of mouth, hearsay, old newspaper clippings, an occasional eyewitness and the like.  No, it’s not scientific–but then neither are those TV “experts” who charge a large hunk of chump change for their expertise these days.

In her present incarnation, Tall Betsy dates back to 1980, when a local Cleveland Tennessee businessman and entrepreneur, Allan Jones, decided to get up on stilts, don a long black gown and a witches’ fright mask and hand out candy to neighborhood kids.  At first his fright costume worked too well; the local children avoided his home on Halloween like the plague.  Bit by bit, however, the kids got used to the spooky seven and half foot crone and the appearance of Tall Betsy became an annual tradition until it grew into a day long block party with thousands attending.  In recent years the celebration has also included TV celebrities and rock stars such as Little Richard.

Whether the block party got a little too big or whether Squire Jones simply got weary of standing on stilts all day, Tall Betsy disappeared from the Cleveland celebration for several years.  By all accounts she is back on the scene, handing out candy as before and a documentary has even been made about her legend.  So Cleveland, Tennessee is definitely a fun place to be on Halloween.

Although Allan Jones can certainly be credited with reviving the tradition regarding Tall Betsy, contrary to what professional debunkers may claim, he by no means originated the legend.

Jones actually learned the story of Tall Betsy from his mother, Giney Jones, who in turn had heard it as a girl from her mother, Marie Slaughter. So the tale of Tall Betsy, also known as Black Betsy or simply The Lady in Black, goes back to at least the 1920’s and 30’s and the story seems to be a genuine local tradition.

In her original incarnation, Tall Betsy was a real apparition—or at least “told as true”—who was of uncommon height (seven and half feet tall) who had a persimmon tree for a cane and who wandered the streets of Cleveland late at night.  Her grave is located in Fort Hill Cemetery, where she seems to have originally been seen and all sorts of dark tales were told about her to young children.  She was alleged to kidnap children out too late on Halloween and carry them off to her mausoleum, where she would cook and eat them and gnaw on their bones.

At this point in time it’s impossible to say how the story of Tall Betsy originated.  Whether there was indeed a cemetery ghost who was a Lady in Black (Kingston, Tennessee has one too) which was sighted on dark and gloomy nights, or whether she was just some eccentric old crone of uncommon height whose nocturnal wanderings became the subject of unkind gossip, is not known.  Tall Betsy defies easy explanations; but as far as the folk of Cleveland, Tennessee are concerned, she is a reality—at least once a year.

For further uncanny tales of ghosts, ghouls and witches, see Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee, and, of course, Dixie Spirits.

Sumner Spirits, Halloween Hauntings, Part 8

Halloween Hauntings, Part 8:

Sumner Spirits

“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.

Gallatin, Tennessee, the most haunted town square in the state.

Downtown Gallatin, Tennessee, is home to several resident ghosts, all of which are fully documented in Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee

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.

Monthaven, the old haunted Fite House in Hendersonville
Monthaven,  otherwise known as The Fite House, sits on land which dates back to frontier days. It was also used as a temporary hospital after a cavalry skirmish during the Civil War and some of the casualties still haunt the house.

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,

Fairvue, once the abode of the Famed Adelicia Acklen, is now a wealthy subdivision--but not so exclusive that ghosts don't haunt it still.
Fairvue, once the abode of the Famed Adelicia Acklen, is now a wealthy subdivision–but not so exclusive that ghosts don’t haunt it still.

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!

Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground: True Tales from the Haunted Hills of the Mid South
Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground: True Tales from the Haunted Hills of the Mid South
GHOSTS AND HAUNTS OF TENNESSEE
Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee offers all things spooky in the Mid South and covers the favorite haunts of downtown Gallatin plus other Country spooks.