Haunted Tennessee, Briefly Noted

Cherry Mansion
265 West Main Street
Savannah

The great Alabama storyteller, Kathryn Tucker Windham, provides the account of three people who witnessed an odd event while sitting on the porch of the Cherry Mansion one evening in 1976. Around 11 PM, the trio watched as a man in a white suit and wide-brimmed hat approached the historical marker in front of the house. The man read the marker and then, in full view of the spectators on the porch, vanished.

Cherry Mansion, 1974, by Jack Boucher for the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

The house is magnificently sited on an ancient bluff overlooking the Tennessee River. This home was constructed around 1830 by David Robinson, possibly as a gift to his daughter who was the wife of businessman William Cherry. An ardent Unionist during the Civil War, Cherry offered the use of his home to several Union generals in 1862 who used it in the days leading up to the Battle of Shiloh, which took place about 9 miles south of Savannah. General Charles Ferguson Smith, suffering from a recent leg injury passed away in the house during that time.

On the morning of April 6th, legend holds that General Ulysses Grant’s breakfast was interrupted by an overture of cannon-fire announcing the Confederates’ surprise attack on Union forces camped at Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River. Furious fighting over a sunken road where Union Generals Benjamin Prentiss and W. H. L. Wallace defended their position against heavy artillery fire from Confederate batteries gave a head wound to Wallace and the area to be nicknamed, “The Hornet’s Nest.” Wallace was taken to Cherry Mansion to receive medical attention.

Legend holds that Wallace’s devoted wife, Martha Ann, had received a premonition of her husband’s death and traveled to Tennessee in hopes that he was unharmed. Arriving in the midst of the battle, she was stunned to find that her husband had been wounded and took up residence at his side in Cherry Mansion. When her husband died a few days later, she was still at his side. People passing the mansion have reported seeing the form of a gentleman in a uniform looking out one of the upstairs windows. This form is widely believed to be that of General Wallace.

This home is a private residence.

Sources

  • Brown, Alan. Haunted Tennessee: Ghosts and Strange Phenomena of the Volunteer State. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 2009.
  • Charles Ferguson Smith. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 30 December 2017.
  • Cherry Mansion. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 30 December 2017.
  • Coleman, Christopher K. Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 2010.
  • Hammerquist, Gail. National Register of Historic Places Nomination form for the Cherry Mansion. February 1976.
  • West, Mike. “Tennessee home to tragic Civil War ghost story.” Murfreesboro Post. 26 October 2008.
  • Windham, Kathryn Tucker. 13 Tennessee Ghosts and Jeffrey. Tuscaloosa, AL: U. of AL Press, 1977.

Cocke County Memorial Building
103 North Cosby Highway
Newport

This unassuming building in the small town of Newport in Eastern Tennessee bears the weight of a tragedy. The sadness of this tragic moment in the mid 1960s still echoes now, more than fifty years later.

Cocke County Memorial Building, 2011, by Dwight Burdette. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Opened in 1931 as an American Legion post, the Cocke County Memorial Building was constructed to memorialize locals who had given their lives in the First World War. The building includes a gym with a stage, as well as office and meeting space for the post and the community at large.

On July 9, 1964, near the Cocke County community of Parrottville, a witness observed a plane with a “violet red light burning on the fuselage.” A short time later other witnesses saw the plane flying low with smoke trailing from it. The plane veered off course and crashed on a wooded mountain slope. Moments before the impact, witnesses observed something falling from the aircraft. A search revealed that one of the plane’s emergency exits had been opened and a passenger had fallen. That passenger, as well as the plane’s remaining passengers and crew, a total of 39 souls, perished in the accident.

As Newport had no large facilities to accommodate the remains of the 39 who had died in the accident, investigators and rescue personnel commandeered the Cocke County Memorial Building for use during the operation. Since most of the bodies were in pieces, remains were spread out on the gym floor to aid in identification. After studying the wreckage of the plane and the remains, authorities ascertained that a fire had broken out in the passenger compartment in mid-air. After two weeks, the investigators and the human remains left the Memorial Building, but spirits have lingered.

Author John Norris Brown, who once maintained the excellent blog, Ghosts and Spirits of Tennessee (the website is no longer extant, though it can still be found on the Web Archive), was one of the first people to document this haunting in Newport. Though some of his facts about the plane crash were incorrect, he described some of the experiences visitors to the building have experienced: “[they have] felt presences, heard voices, as well as the screams of a woman, and the cries of babies. Feelings of being watched are said to be almost unbearable in the building.”

In an article in Supernatural Magazine, paranormal investigator Anthony Justus describes the experiences of him and his paranormal team during a 2008 investigation. While investigating the building’s sub-basement, Justus encountered an entity that he described as “an intelligence without form.” He eloquently continued: “I saw nothing, heard little but I felt it. A deep resonant cold that chilled me to the bone. I felt threatened and oppressed. As I left the area, I felt its heavy presence behind me, following up those rickety stairs, so close I could feel it on my neck. It was death, it was sadness and it was hate, a predatory thing that lurked in the darkness.”

Later, the team members found balls from a Bingo game being thrown from the bleachers in the gym, bouncing and rolling across the wooden floor. During this time, Justus caught a glimpse of a young boy standing in the corner of the room who disappeared as he approached. The most spectacular event of the evening was noted as being a moment when a set of doors that were locked violently threw themselves open gouging the plaster walls and cracking one of the wooden doors. It seems that the spirits from the plane crash are unhappy at being stuck in this plane of existence.

Sources

Cragfont
300 Cragfont Road
Castalian Springs

Cragfont was built to impress. Constructed of stone on a bluff over a spring that feeds into nearby Bledsoe’s Creek, this was the first stone house constructed on the Tennessee frontier. With craftsmen and artisans brought from Maryland, James Winchester began work on his home in 1798, finishing around 1802. Besides providing a fine home for his family, Cragfont served as a gathering spot for locals and as a stop for travelers.

Cragfont, 2008, by Brian Stansberry. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

James Winchester was already an accomplished individual when he built his home, having served as a Patriot officer during the American Revolution. In the latter years of the 18th century, Winchester had served in the North Carolina Constitutional Convention and worked towards the establishment of the state of Tennessee, after which he served in the newly created legislature. During the War of 1812, Winchester left Cragfont to serve his country. He died here in 1826.

A home that has witnessed the whirlwind of history that Cragfont has witnessed must surely be haunted. Caretakers of the home have noted that furniture and objects apparently move during the night when the house is locked up, while beds will appear to have been slept in. Both visitors and staff have reported seeing apparitions and hearing disembodied footsteps and voices within the house.

Sources

  • Brown, John Norris. “Cragfont Mansion Hauntings.” Ghosts & Spirits of Tennessee. Accessed 31 January 2011.
  • Coop, May Dean. National Register of Historic Places Nomination form for Cragfont. 16 June 1969.
  • James Winchester. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 31 December 2017.
  • Morris, Jeff; Donna Marsh; & Garett Merk. Nashville Haunted Handbook. Cincinnati, OH: Clerisy Press, 2011.
  • MTSU Center for Historic Preservation. Cragfont, Sumner County, Tennessee, Historic Structure Report. July 2012.

Hunt-Phelan House
533 Beale Street
Memphis

Legend holds that at the height of a yellow fever epidemic in 1873, the Hunt family fled their Memphis home after entrusting a chest of gold to a manservant, Nathan Wilson. Upon their return, Wilson was found dead in his room and the chest missing. The only clue to the whereabouts of the chest being mud on the servant’s boots indicating that he may have buried the chest. Stories have emerged that Wilson’s specter is sometimes seen around the house and will guide fortunate witnesses to the buried fortune.

Hunt-Phelan House, 2010, by Thomas R. Machnitzki. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Marking the Lauderdale Street end of the “infamous section” of Beale Street where Blues music first developed, the Hunt-Phelan House has just as infamous a history. Built in 1832 by George Wyatt, during the Civil War the house was used a headquarters for Confederate General Leonidas Polk while planning the Siege of Corinth, Mississippi and a few months later after the fall of Memphis, the house was headquarters for Union General Ulysses S. Grant while he planned the Vicksburg Campaign. The house then served as a Freedmen’s Bureau and was finally returned to the family by President Andrew Johnson in 1865. More recently, the house was operated as The Inn at Hunt-Phelan featuring four-star accommodations and restaurants.

Sources

  • Brown, Alan. Haunted Tennessee: Ghosts and Strange Phenomena of the Volunteer State. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 2009.
  • Coleman, Christopher K. Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 2010.
  • Lester, Dee Gee. “Hunt-Phelan House.” Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. 25 December 2009.
  • Lovett, Bobby L. “Beale Street.” Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. 25 December 2009.

Orpheum Theatre
203 South Main Street
Memphis

At the other end of the “infamous section” of Beale Street from the Hunt-Phelan House is the dazzling Orpheum Theatre. Opened in 1928, the “New” Orpheum replaced the opera house that originally occupied this site from 1890 until its destruction by a fire in 1923. The Orpheum is among the ranks of hundreds of theatres throughout the country designed by the Chicago architectural firm of Rapp and Rapp, which designed hundreds of theatres throughout the country some of which, like the Paramount in Ashland, Kentucky; and the Tivoli in Chattanooga, are known to be haunted.

The proscenium arch of the Orpheum Theatre, 2010, by Orpheummemphis. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Grand Opera House was added to the Orpheum circuit in 1907. Made up of the finest theatres from coast to coast, the Orpheum circuit featured the top vaudeville headliners, bringing them to Memphis audiences for almost two decades. Following a performance by singer Blossom Seeley on October 17, 1923, the theatre was gutted by a fire causing approximately $250,000 (about $3.5 million in today’s dollars) in damage. A new, state-of-the-art theatre was constructed on the site opening on November 19, 1928. This new theatre continued to bring cream of the crop stars to Memphis as well as films, which were accompanied by a huge Wurlitzer organ.

As any good theatre has a ghost, it’s no surprise that the Orpheum features some very well-known ghost stories. Around the time that the theatre was sold to the Memphis Development Foundation in 1976, Vincent Astor, a local historian, took some friends to the theatre to show them the Wurlitzer organ. While the group was watching him play, someone asked about the little girl they observed playing in the lobby. Wearing a white dress, black stockings, and with long braids, but no shoes, this girl was repeatedly seen in the theatre sometimes sitting in a specific seat in the balcony.

During an investigation by a class from the University of Memphis, a Ouija board was used to contact the playful spirit. At that time, the spirit was identified as “Mary,” a little girl who died in 1921. In a video posted by the theatre, Astor relates that, including Mary, there may be as many as seven spirits within the theatre.

Sources

  • Brown, Alan. Haunted Tennessee: Ghosts and Strange Phenomena of the Volunteer State. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 2009.
  • Coleman, Christopher K. Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 2010.
  • Orpheum Memphis. “Orpheum Ghost Stories with Vincent Astor.” YouTube. 29 October 2012.
  • Orpheum Theatre (Memphis). Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 2 January 2018.
  • Williamson, James Floyd, Jr. National Register of Historic Places nomination form for the Orpheum Theatre. January 1977.

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Railyard Revenant—West Virginia

Facebook can be a marvelous resource for ghost stories, but only if you can stand wading through unsourced posts, over-eager amateur ghost hunters with blurry ghost photos, and memes asking if you believe in ghosts. The information on this haunting came from a post on the Haunted West Virginia page that included the original article along with the name of the paper and the date, hallelujah!

The Norfolk and Western Railroad got into the coal business in the late 19th century. After the purchase of the Flat-Top Coal Land Association and the massive coal fields under its control, the railroad reorganized the organization into the Pocahontas Coal and Coke Company and began to expand its railroads into the coal fields of southern West Virginia. As the company began cutting into this remote region, towns were established including the small town of Williamson.

Aerial view of Williamson in 1990. Taken by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers. Notice the railroad cutting through the middle of town.

At a point along the Tug Fork River, at this point the border between West Virginia and Kentucky, a marge railyard was established with a town being established around it. The railroad still cuts through the heart of this small town with the large railyard still in operation, though the railroad’s name has changed from the Norfolk and Western to Norfolk Southern. The town is now the county seat for Mingo County.

On September 1, 1935, the paper in Bluefield, West Virginia, the Bluefield Daily Telegraph, reported on paranormal activity experienced in the railyard.

But today comes the strangest ghost tale every published. The wonder of it is some of the big newspapers have not grabbed it, for it sure is a knockout. Many Norfolk and Western railroad men vouch for the truth of the story, men whose word is as good as their bond.

This amazing happening has its setting on Williamson yard, and has been told and retold until around the Mingo county seat the kiddies are sometimes put to sleep thinking of the yarn.

But we will not [sic] longer keep the reader in suspense.

From the inferno of the boiler of a Norfolk and Western yard engine in use in Williamson yard may be heard the pitiful cries of baby. Of course, there is no baby in that firebox. Even a child need not be told that.

But often during the dead hours of night from the firebox the engineer and fireman almost stand speechless as the faint cry of an infant is emitted from the seething furnace of their locomotive.

Billy Dotson, veteran engineer, is said to have been the first to hear the baby cry, but since, others claim to have heard the voice distinctly.

One theory advanced is that a long time ago a young baby in some maner [sic] was tossed into the firebox of this particular engine, and that its tiny spirit remains.

Anyway, you have the story. It is not for us to offer a solution of this amazing phenomena.

Panoramic view of the Williamson Railyard, 2013. Photo by Magnolia677, courtesy of Wikipedia.

As far as I can find, this is the only reporting on this incident. It is unknown as to if the activity in the Williamson Railyard has ceased.

Sources

  • Norfolk and Western Railway. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 16 January 2018.
  • Williamson, West Virginia. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 16 January 2018.
  • “Writer unfolds a new ghost story.” Bluefield Daily Telegraph. 1 September 1935.

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From a dumpster fire to a Husk—Savannah

12 West Oglethorpe Avenue
Savannah, Georgia

In 2006, a ghost tour guide told a reporter from the Houston Chronicle that this one address in Savannah has seen “more conversions than Billy Graham,” a reference to the nationally known evangelist. Of course, these were conversions to one of Savannah’s true religions: belief in the paranormal. According to this tour guide, this site has played host to a panoply of tragedies and, as a result, now hosts paranormal activity.

During this particular tour, guests were allowed to step up to the front door of this forlorn house and take photographs in hopes of capturing evidence of the home’s ghosts. Reportedly, some guests experienced battery drain with their cameras and even motorized wheelchairs. Others were shocked at what appeared in their photos.

This particular site—within Savannah’s massive historic district—has seen a tremendous evolution since the city’s founding in 1733. As noted by a monument in the median of West Oglethorpe within sight of the house, this property was initially the city’s first Jewish cemetery. A burial spot for the local Jewish community was later established some distance away, though, the graves were left at this site, which evolved into a residential area.

The house at 12 West Oglethorpe is an unassuming Georgian home with an elegant circular porch. Among the numerous homes in Georgia’s oldest city, the house is not as old as some of its neighbors, dating only to around 1898. Built as a home, the structure’s modest history includes the building’s use as an Elks Lodge and later, a performing arts school, until the building was abandoned in 1985.

During the time that the house sat boarded up, ghost stories began to circulate and the home became a fixture on many ghost tours. Here, guides would relate the sad tale of Dr. Brown, a physician who occupied the house in 1876, during the last of the yellow fever epidemics to strike the city. Patients visiting the house brought the illness into the home and one by one, the doctor’s family died after succumbing. Grief stricken, the good doctor sealed himself in one of the upstairs rooms and starved to death.

This is a great story, but total bunk. Yellow fever, which does feature in some local ghost stories, is not spread from human to human contact, but spread by mosquitos. Local tour guide and author, James Caskey was not able to locate any reference to a doctor living on this site (this house didn’t exist in 1876) or anywhere in this area named Brown. While this story isn’t true, that doesn’t discount the paranormal activity here. Some of the activity described by Caskey in his authoritative 2008 book, Haunted Savannah,  includes the apparition of an elderly man seen peering from an upstairs window—despite the fact that there was no floor underneath that particular window—odd sounds being heard by the neighbors, and several strange anomalies appearing in photographs.

A year after Caskey’s book was published, a dumpster fire set by teenage pranksters ignited the modern addition at the back of the house. Photos of the damage show the addition with broken, charred windows and a missing roof. Neighbors, worried about the building’s safety pressed the city for action, though they were thwarted by the slow-turning wheels of government and absentee owners.

Caskey makes an appearance in a recent episode of Haunted Towns on Destination America. The show follows the Tennessee Wraith Chasers as they visit cities and towns throughout the country with haunted reputations attempting to suss out why these places have earned such reputations. Their episode on Savannah concentrates on the legends surrounding Wright Square, located just around the corner from 12 West Oglethorpe. Caskey is interviewed early in the episode where he notes that legend of the square and the house may be connected.

Wright Square, just around the corner from 12 West Oglethorpe. Photo by XEON, 2013, courtesy of Wikipedia.

He also remarks that the house has never been investigated, spurring the show’s investigators to investigate themselves. In fact, another local guide and investigator, Ryan Dunn, explored the house in 2010 and had a frightening encounter. On the second floor Dunn’s camera “powered down for no apparent reason.” He continues, “As I looked up, I saw a black shadow person cross the hallway in front of me from one bedroom to the other.” He describes the shadow figure as being three dimensional and roughly shaped like a person, but with no discernable features.

Dunn also includes a fascinating tale from the 2009 fire. After extinguishing the fire, local firefighters held a fire watch in order to ensure that the fire did not reignite. Staying in the house overnight, the firefighters began to tell ghost stories and daring each other to creep up the stairs to the “haunted room” where Dr. Brown supposedly died. One firefighter bravely entered the room and let out a scream. Dashing down the stairs, the firefighter remained in his vehicle out front for the rest of the evening, refusing to reveal what he encountered in the room.

During the Tennessee Wraith Chasers’ investigation, they meet a property manager working on the renovation of 12 West Oglethorpe who told them the story of Dr. Brown. While the story is being told, the crew’s camera unexpectedly cuts out. After getting their camera up and running, the property manager tells the investigators that he had had one peculiar incident while working in the house where his name had been called by a disembodied voice. The paranormal team did a sweep of the house including the basement where a temperature gauge registered a temperature of 66.6 degrees. During the evening investigation, the group experienced battery drain, captured a few EVPs, and heard a disembodied voice.

The building opened its doors on January 5th as the Savannah outpost of the Charleston restaurant Husk. In the award-winning hands of chefs Sean Brock and Tyler Williams, Husk opened in Charleston, South Carolina in 2010 in a historic haunted home next door to haunted landmark, Poogan’s Porch. Serving Nouveau Southern cuisine, the chefs playfully rework classic Southern dishes and ingredients bolstered by research into the gastronomic history of the region. The restaurant has also made a point to occupy historic structures in order to preserve the historic built environments in addition to food ways and incidentally, the spirits, of each city where it operates.

Sources

  • Caskey, James. Haunted Savannah: The Official Guidebook to Savannah Haunted History Tour, 2008. Savannah, GA: Bonaventure Books, 2007.
  • Cowen, Diane. “Spirited Savannah.” Houston Chronicle. 19 March 2006.
  • Curl, Eric. “Three downtown Savannah historic commercial buildings closed to public and awaiting restoration.” Savannah Morning News. 16 November 2013.
  • Dunn, Ryan. Savannah’s Afterlife: True Tales of a Paranormal Investigator. Atglen, PA: Schiffer, 2014.
  • “Savannah.” Haunted Towns. Season 1, Episode 3. Originally aired 9 August 2017.
  • Whiteway, Maria. “Husk is here!” Connect Savannah. 10 January 2018.

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