A firebrand phantom—Athens, Georgia

T. R. R. Cobb House
175 Hill Street
Athens, Georgia

Several years ago, a visitor to the T. R. R. Cobb House was touring the upstairs alone when his cell phone rang. Answering it, the gentleman stepped into the room that had once been T. R. R. Cobb’s bedroom. Suddenly, he heard a voice shushing him.

The gentlemen quickly headed back down the stairs. After sheepishly apologizing to the museum’s staff, the guest discovered that none of them had been upstairs or had shushed him. Perhaps Mr. Cobb wanted some undisturbed sleep.

Portrait of Thomas Reade Rootes Cobb by Horace James Bradley 1860
Portrait of Thomas Reade Rootes Cobb by Horace James Bradley, 1860.

Cobb certainly may need sleep after living a vigorous life. Born in Jefferson County, Georgia, Thomas Reade Rootes Cobb moved with his family to Athens at a young age. After graduating from the University of Georgia at the top of his class, he married the daughter of Judge Joseph Henry Lumpkin, later the Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, and served as a reporter for the same court, producing the 15-volume Digest of the Statute Laws of the State of Georgia in 1851. In the tension-filled days leading up to the outbreak of the Civil War, Cobb’s legal scholarship heartily defended the institution of slavery in his massive volume, An Inquiry into the Law of Negro Slavery in the United States of America.

Angered by the election of Lincoln as president, Cobb vociferously denounced the Federal government and began preaching the gospel of secession throughout the state. After the state’s secession, he became a member of the Confederate Congress and set to work writing the Confederate constitution as well a new constitution for the state. Despite his effort in creating the constitution, Cobb resigned from the congress in frustration from the lack of cooperation. He set about forming a military regiment that became known as Cobb’s Legion.

He led his legion the Seven Days Battles, the Second Battle of Manassas in Virginia, and Antietam in Maryland. While defending the infamous stone wall at Marye’s Heights south of Fredericksburg in December 1862, Cobb was mortally wounded when a Union shell exploded nearby. With his femoral artery severed, he bled out at a field hospital as his troops continued to hold their position behind the meager stone wall.

Years later, Woodrow Wilson described the fiery Cobb, “One figure in particular took the imagination and ruled the spirits of that susceptible people, the figure of Thomas R. R. Cobb. The manly beauty of his tall, athletic person; his frank eyes on fire; his ardor…given over to a cause not less sacred, not less fraught with the issues of life and death than religion itself; his voice…musical and sure to find its way to the heart…made his words pass like flame from countryside to countryside.”

Thomas Cobb’s majestic home has led a life that’s equally as twisting and turning as the firebrand who lived there. The house started life as a much plainer Federal-style home around 1839. It was purchased in 1842 by Cobb’s father-in-law who presented it, according to family lore, as a wedding present to his daughter and son-in-law. It was Cobb who added octagonal additions and columns, elevating the home’s appearance in 1852.

HABS T. R. R. Cobb House Athens Georgia 1939
The Cobb House in its original location on Prince Avenue, 1939, by Thomas Waterman. Photo taken for the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the house saw a variety of residents and uses ranging from a boarding house to a fraternity house. It is from this period that the earliest report of paranormal activity was documented regarding the house. Collected as part of the WPA Writers’ Project during the Great Depression. That account recalls the spirit of “a gentleman wearing a gay dressing gown” who is seen descending the stairs and sitting in front of the fire in the drawing room.

In 1962, the house came under the ownership of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta, who used the structure as a parish house, rectory, and offices for St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. During that time, two priests and several nuns living in the house had encounters with a man in grey who entered the library and stood by the fireplace.

One priest recalled a fascinating moment in the house. The priests tended to accumulate newspapers on the back porch. After reading the papers, they were consigned to a stack that soon reached from floor to ceiling. One day, the papers erupted into flame. While the papers burned, the house remained untouched and the fire extinguished itself miraculously.

After serving the church, the dilapidated house was sentenced to demolition in 1984. Instead of resigning the house to the wrecking ball, the house was dismantled and moved from its original Prince Avenue location to Stone Mountain Park, just outside of Atlanta. The park intended to restore the home as part of its Historic Square, which contains a number of historic structures collected from throughout the state along with their accompanying ghosts. Instead, the Cobb House was put up on cinder blocks and sat unrestored for nearly twenty years.

With funding from the Watson-Brown Foundation, the home was returned to Athens, having taken the scenic route from Prince Avenue to its new location on Hill Street, but not without some controversy. A 2004 article in the New York Times stirred the pot by enumerating Cobb’s ardent positions on slavery and race, positions that do not mesh with the current atmosphere in modern Athens. Despite protests from throughout the city, the house was returned and restored.

T. R. R. Cobb House Athens Georgia 2011 ghosts haunted
T. R. R. Cobb House, 2011. Photo by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.

Throughout two house moves and a major restoration, spirits have remained active in the home. Staff members regularly hear the sounds of people entering the home during the day only to discover that no one is there. They are also regularly treated to the sounds of footsteps and laughter when the house is quiet. One of the more amusing incidents took place late one afternoon when an older couple was touring the house.

Their tour was led by the education director who politely answered the question about if the house is haunted. The lady who asked, responded that she would be freaked out if she saw a chandelier swinging on its own accord. Lo, and behold, the chandelier in the front parlor was swinging so wildly when the trio entered that the education director had to physically stop it herself.

An antique armoire in the hallway of the house has a door in its side that opens on its own. The furniture, which is original to the house, has an opening in the side that reveals a coat hook. At certain times of the year when the wood expands and causes difficulty in opening the door, it is found open anyway.

There are also apparitions that have been seen by visitors and passersby including an elderly black woman and a little girl. No reports as to whether the grey-clad man has been seen in the house. Perhaps the firebrand phantom is too busy trying to rest in his bedroom.

Sources

  • Adkins, Tracy L. Ghosts of Athens. CreateSpace Publishing, 2016.
  • Battle of Fredericksburg. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 23 June 2019.
  • Brice, Plott. “Cobb House bears weight of history.” Atlanta Constitution. 28 June 2004.
  • Day, Kathleen A. National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form for T. R. R. Cobb House. 25 March 1975.
  • Jacobs, Andrew. “Athens Journal; A Symbol of Slavery, and a Storm, Shall Rise Again.” New York Times. 28 April 2004.
  • Killion, Ronald G. and Charles T. Waller. A Treasury of Georgia Folklore. Atlanta, GA: Cherokee Publishing, 1972.
  • Miles, Jim. “Weird Georgia: T.R.R. Cobb Haunts Athens Home.” Brown’s Guide to Georgia. Accessed 18 June 2011.
  • Nash, Steven & Matthew Bailey. “Thomas R. R. Cobb (1823-1862).New Georgia Encyclopedia. 18 March 2005.
  • Reap, James K. Athens: A Pictorial History. Norfolk, VA: Donning Company, 1985.
  • T. R. R. Cobb House. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 18 June 2011.
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