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.

Strange Tales of Music City’s Morgues

Located on Second Avenue South, the old Vanderbilt Medical School building once housed a morgue–and reportedly is still haunted


In my book, Ghost and Haunts of Tennessee, I devoted a chapter to some of the creepiest hauntings that Nashville has to offer.  Regrettably, you have to be dead to get into them!

There have been three morgues in Music City’s history, all located within a short distance of one another.

The first, and oldest, was once located atop the original Nashville General Hospital.  The top floor of this old Victorian structure was called “The Haunted House” by nurses and attendants who worked in the old municipal house of healing.  So many workers had creepy encounters there that it became more and more difficult to get staff to go up there and properly file the newly deceased away.

While the hospital has since moved on to newer digs, the original building still stands on Rolling Mill Hill overlooking the Cumberland River as imposing as the House of Usher must once have been.

The venerable medical building is now a series of luxury digs that recent transplants to Nashville have snatched up like grave-robbers finding a freshly planted corpse.  I wonder if the posh new residents have yet had encounters with the previous tenants?

Just out front of the old Metro General stood the New Morgue for many years; this too acquired a spooky reputation.  By the time they built the New Morgue was built, the city had acquired a Coroner to do autopsies, as well as more professionally handle the growing number of murder victims, suicides and other violent death that came their way.

A number of first hand accounts verify that the New Morgue was every bit as haunted as the old.  Sadly, the squarish stone building is now gone from Rolling Mill Hill–but that doesn’t mean the ghosts are.

Now upscale digs, the old Nashville General’s morgue used to be referred to by staff as “The Haunted House”

Just a block over from these two spots on Hermitage Avenue is the old Vanderbilt Medical School building.  Back when the school originally opened, it was located on Second Avenue South in a suitably spooky looking Victorian building.

Today it is a private residence, so while you can gawk from across the street, and hope to see a specter at the window, don’t trespass!

In its day, however, the old medical building had its own morgue. It housed patients who did not survive the medical student’s healing hands, plus cadavers in cold storage awaiting dissection by the aspiring young doctors.  The cadavers are long gone–but not their ghosts.

For a fuller account of many ghosts of Music City, grab a copy of Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee; in the meantime, for a sample chapter see: .http://www.scribd.com/doc/40421658/Excerpt-from-Ghosts-and-Haunts-of-Tennessee

Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground: True Tales from the Haunted Hills of the Mid South.
Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee. True haunting tales of the Mid South