Traveling through the Old Country one may find it so deeply rooted in myth that storied places crowd the landscape; by contrast, the vast American landscape is not so studded with stories, mythic or otherwise, for a variety of reasons. Americans, by their nature, are a forward thinking people who may disregard the relics of the past. With every historic site fated for a date with a bulldozer or old building that succumbs to a wrecking ball, fantastic stories are hauled off to the dump within every heap of earth, brick, steel, or wood. In places where history is not so carelessly razed in the name of progress, the myths are able to take root.
The thought occurred to me as I was on the Chattanooga Ghost Tour the other night, that in many places ghost tours are the only real keepers of local mythology in the classic oral tradition. Certainly, the stories being told on these tours are not myths in the sense of being fictitious, they often come directly from history and often include experiences that have occurred to the guides or their associates. But that these ghost stories are a way of explaining local history makes them myth-like. Ghost stories themselves also preserve some of the more gruesome and salacious moments from history, moments that can help to add living and emotive flesh to the skeletons of those long dead.
When the Hamilton County Jail was demolished in 1976 to make way for the modern Hamilton County Justice Center, wrecking crews presumably hauled away the remains of the jail’s gallows that had once stood in the building’s basement. The final executions on this gallows were of two young African-American men who had been charged with the murder of a saloon keeper. News of the execution appeared in a number of national papers including the Evening Star in Washington, D.C. which included this note on page two of its January 11, 1895 edition:
TWO MURDERERS HANGED.
George Mapp and Buddy Wooten Punished for Their Crime.
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn., January 11. – George Mapp and Buddy Wooten, two young negroes, were hanged in the execution room of the county jail a few minutes after 8 o’clock this morning. Wooten died a Catholic, and Rev. Father Walsh was with him on the scaffold.
Mapp, however, refused to have a minister with him. He requested that his body be thrown in the river, and said he would be back tonight to haunt the sheriffs and others who had anything to do with his conviction.
The two negroes murdered Marion L. Ross, an aged white saloon keeper, on Saturday night, December 17, 1892. Robbery was their intention in committing the crime. Wooten confessed, implicating Mapp.
It’s interesting to see Mapp’s threat (some newspapers report that it was Wooten making the threat) included in the newspaper accounts of the execution. Near the gallows in the basement of the jail, there was a series of holding cells—a kind of death row, if you will. Even after Mapp and Wooten’s executions when the gallows sat unused, these holding cells were used. It is reported that when one of these cells was occupied by a particularly rowdy prisoner, a mist would appear and pass over the cell calming the prisoner within.
According to our tour guide, Kevin Bartolomucci, a current jail employee has also noted that when a rowdy prisoner is placed in the holding cell in the processing area, a few times an odd mist has appeared and calmed the prisoner. It seems that death and the transition from and old building to a modern one hasn’t banished the spirits of these two prisoners.
The Chattanooga Ghost Tour was established in 2007 by Amy Petulla, and it has grown in the ten years it has haunted the streets of Chattanooga. As she was establishing the tour, Amy also joined forces with Jessica Penot to write Haunted Chattanooga, which was published in 2011. Amy sent me a personal invitation to take part in the tour’s grand reopening and tenth-anniversary last weekend. The tour recently had to relocate its offices after the collapse of the 1876 building that housed the offices along with a restaurant. Fortunately, the collapse affected the front portion of the structure only affecting the restaurant, though the building was found to be structurally unsound and demolished.
The new office has a marvelous steampunk feel and visitors are greeted by a talking skull appropriately named Yorick. The new location has also afforded Petulla the ability to introduce a new tour that was debuted along with the festivities. The “Murder and Mayhem Tour” leads visitors on a pleasant walk through some of Chattanooga’s most harrowing murders and history, many of which have left spiritual residue. Along the way, patrons are introduced to murderers, their victims, prostitutes, and a kindly theatre patron, all inhabitants of the pantheon of Chattanooga myths. Besides the new tour, Petulla offers a handful of different tour experiences, some of which involve using various types of ghost hunting instruments. Of the many ghost tours I have taken, this tour ranks among the best for keeping the myths of Southern history alive.
On your next jaunt through Chattanooga, be sure to enjoy an introduction to the mythological side of this city!
Please visit the tour’s website for further information. https://chattanoogaghosttours.com/.
- Chattanooga Ghost Tours. “Murder & Mayhem Tour.” Led by Kevin Bartolomucci. 10 June 2017.
- “Two Murderers Hanged.” Evening Star (Washington, D.C.) 11 January 1895.