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.

Tennessee’s Haunted Capitol: The Cupola Ghost

Restless Spirits Stalk Tennessee’s Legislature

Brent Moore state capitol at night
More than politics bedevils Tennessee state Capitol!

In my books I chronicle all things weird, wonderful and otherwise beyond the mortal ken occurring south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

As time goes by I often accumulate more information about one or another of those paranormal subjects.  Should the august publishers of Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground or Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War ever choose to do revised editions of my books, I have a wealth of new matter to include in them as well as select images for your edification.  Until then, I am afraid readers will just have to be content with occasional updates on this blog. Of course, if you read an entry here, go back to consult the fuller account in my book..

The Tennessee State Legislature—that old Grecian temple that sits atop Capitol Hill in downtown Nashville—has stood majestically overlooking the city for over a century and a half.  From time to time, work crews have been brought in to renovate the inside work spaces or to restore its structure.  The last time that construction crews were in there they not only stirred up dust—they also stirred up a few resident phantoms or two.

Regarding my chapter on Capitol Ghosts in Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, there was one haunting which did not make it into the book.  Since that pioneering book on Nashville and the Mid-South’s ghosts, a whole passle of ghost tours have sprouted up in Music City inspired by the book. Sadly, not only do they not credit Strange Tales as a source of information, from what I can gather, they have the account of the Capitol ghosts all wrong.

Whatever their version may be, if any, herein is the authentic account. Since I received my information from inside sources who know the building’s history intimately, I thought I ought to pass along the true story (so far as we mortals can know it) of the Ghost of the Capitol Cupola.

Atop Tennessee’s Capitol is an ornate cupola with glass sides, on which sits the flagpole where the United States flag flies.  In February of 1862, however, another flag flew over the capitol—the Confederate flag.

Nashville Confederate Capitol Bldg
On the Confederate twenty dollar bill is displayed the Tennessee State Capitol; ironically, this bill wasn’t issued until AFTER the city fell to the Yankees!

In the January of that year, a Yankee force under General Ulysses S. Grant captured the Rebel army defending Forts Donelson and Henry, two mighty bastions on the state border with Kentucky, guarding the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers respectively.

When the two forts fell, a panic ensued in Nashville the likes it has never seen since. All the planters and all the planter’s sons who had so recently been militant Secessionists fled the city, their fancy carriages laden down with all the loot they could carry.

Order out of Chaos Gen Forrest restores order during the Great Panic Feb 22 1862 by Mort Kunstler
Order out of Chaos: Gen. Forrest restores order in Nashville and evacuates Confederate military stores even as Yankee troops occupy the city.

Not long after, Yankee gunboats arrived at Nashville, their big guns pointing ominously point blank at the city.  Yankee troops soon arrived in large numbers to occupy the city.

The first place the Federals went was up to the capitol to haul down the Confederate flag–the symbol of treason and disloyalty.

Jogging double-quick time up the hill, the color-guard, their steel bayonets gleaming atop their muskets, made their way up the steps of the capitol.  Inside the building, they climbed inside the cupola, where a narrow, winding wrought-iron staircase led to the flagpole.

As they neared the top of the spiral staircase, the Yankees found the way blocked by an elderly gentleman dressed in a long greyish jacket.  Unlike the other politicians, this fire-eating Secessionist refused to leave—much less see Old Glory fly over the capitol.

Armed with an antique flintlock, the Secesh proclaimed: “you’ll raise that flag over this building over my dead body!”

Before the young officer in charge of the color guard could answer, a shot rang out from behind him.

The old Rebel clutched his chest, a surprised look frozen on his face, then he tumbled down the stairs ’till he came to rest at the young lieutenant’s feet.

The color guard clambered over the corpse and ascended up to the spire and raised their battle standard over the newly won possession. The American flag flew over the state capitol once more–the first Rebel capital to fall to the Union. Some days later another, another, bigger, flag was raised–Old Glory–which had been kept in secret by a local loyalist, Captain William Driver.

Raising the US flag over the Tennessee state Capitol during the Civil War
Federal troops raise Old Glory over the Tennessee Capitol–for the second time.

Nowadays, maintenance workers in the capitol don’t have much cause to go up into the cupola—nor do they wish to.  When workers are up there they generally have a very eerie feeling, like someone is watching.  They do their repairs and hastily leave.

On more than one occasion, however, workmen have seen a gray mist hanging around the top of the spiral stairs.  The cloudy image is indistinct, but one senses a hostile presence there.

Long-time employees know what it is however—the ghost of that dead Rebel senator, still barring the way to the top.  For him, the war will never be over.

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Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground: True Tales from the Haunted Hills of the Mid South.
GHOSTS AND HAUNTS OF THE CIVIL WAR 3x5
Ghosts & Haunts of the Civil War. True accounts of haunted battlefields, Civil War ghosts, presentiments and other unexplained phenomena.