Walter J. Hanna Memorial Library
4615 Gary Avenue
Fairfield , Alabama
Since I’m under semi-quarantine like so many other people, I have begun to haunt several Facebook groups in search of new-to-me hauntings and further information. I was delighted to find accounts of several frightening encounters experienced by a member of the Hauntings of Alabama group in the public library in Fairfield.
It seems that the poster was involved in renovations at the library in 1989. According to her, the building formerly housed a financial institution Judging from the architecture, it appears that the building was built in the 1950s, though it could be earlier and appears to have been a bank building. A photograph on the library’s website shows what appears to be an old bank vault. It appears to be clad in light colored marble, with a band of darker marble on the front façade. The presence of marble (a type of limestone) may be significant as limestone is believed to possibly attract paranormal activity. Unfortunately, there’s little available online speaking of the building’s history.
Among the activity the poster described was seeing shadow figures “that would dart below my 20 ft ladder as I was painting.” She also noted that something in the ladies’ room scared her so much that she avoided using that restroom in the building for the remainder of the three months she worked there. “There is something in the ladies’ restroom that makes you just want out.”
Most significant was an encounter that happened during a work break. As the workers sat on the stairs inside the building an amorphous black figure “with no defined edges” entered through the door. A four-foot-long slab of marble leaning against the wall, was lifted by the entity and shattered on the floor. After a chill went through the group on the stairs, they heard a door slam.
Fairfield is located in Jefferson County, just west of Birmingham. It was founded in 1910 by the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad division of U.S. Steel as a “model industrial city” built around a steel plant. The community was incorporated in 1919 and continues to operate as a separate entity from Birmingham.
William Gibson Gravesite
US-11 between Shelley Drive and Pinedale Road
The wind doth howl today m’love
And a winter’s worth of rain;
I never had but one true love
In cold grave she was lain.
–“The Unquiet Grave,” traditional ballad (Child Ballad #78)
Since I wrote my Alabama book, I have been searching for a haunting from St. Clair County. I finally found one, thanks to my friend, Dr. Kelsey Graham. Dr. Graham has always had an interest in the unexplained, even recently creating an organization, Abnormal Alabama. In his travels through his home state, he has explored numerous sites, including this lonely, and possibly unquiet roadside grave. My thanks to him and the members of the Hauntings of Alabama Facebook group for information!
U.S. Route 11, which stretches from New Orleans to the Canadian border in Rouses Point, New York, passes through many small towns such as Springville. It also passes a number of haunted sites including the white oak outside of Surgoinsville, Tennessee, that is the subject of the “Long Dog Legend.” Created in 1925, this U.S. Highway pieced together a number of roads under one designation to ease driver confusion and to systematically establish travel routes between major cities. Among the Southern cities linked are Meridian and Hattiesburg, Mississippi; Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, and Gadsden, Alabama; Chattanooga and Knoxville, Tennessee; Winchester, Staunton, and Roanoke, Virginia; Martinsburg, West Virginia; and Hagerstown, Maryland. Dr. Graham notes that this road was originally a stagecoach route between Georgia and Tuscaloosa.
About six miles north of the town, the road passes a single gravesite with a headstone still standing sentinel over a broken marble slab. This is the grave of William G. Gibson, born 12 December 1795, who died, possibly near here, on 20 October 1827. This early grave may be the one of the oldest marked burials in the county.
There is some mystery and legend surrounding the grave’s occupant. Legends agree that Mr. Gibson was a hat salesman from North Carolina. How he ended up dying in the wilds of Alabama is mere speculation. Some stories describe him as the victim of a duel, while others say that he was gored by an ox. The most likely reason for his death was probably an illness that afflicted him as he traveled this early road.
Despite its location in the right-of-way, officials have worked to preserve this grave, even carving out part of the landscape when the road was graded and paved. However, this location just above the road can sometimes surprise drivers. A 1961 article from the newspaper in nearby Pell City describes how this gives “the illusion that it is in the road.” One motorist felt chills when he spotted “the grave silhouetted against the sunset.” Strange lights are sometimes seen around the grave, which I might attribute to cemetery lights, which are frequently seen around graveyards.
The Tri-Cities Region encompasses the extreme northeastern corner of Tennessee and part of southwest Virginia, surrounding the major cities of Kingsport and Johnson City in Tennessee, and Bristol, VA/TN, which is situated astride the state line. This area, in the heart of Appalachia, is noted for its culture, mountain lore, and ghost stories.
This series looks at a representative haunting in each of the region’s counties and it’s one independent city.
Legend of the Long Dog and Friends US-11W north of Surgoinsville
Perched on the state line with Virginia, Hawkins County is one of the oldest counties in Tennessee. Two major paths make their way through the borders of this county. The Holston River snakes its way through much of the county on its route from Kingsport to Knoxville where it converges with the French Broad River to create the might Tennessee River. The river provided mobility to Native Americans and later settlers to the area.
The Natives also trod a path near to the river that was later dubbed the Great Indian War Path which connected the heart of the Muscogee Nation in Alabama through to what would become Upstate New York. European settlers would later claim this path and use it as they migrated throughout the Appalachians. As settlers claimed the area, the path was utilized as a stage coach route from Knoxville to Kingsport. This road is now followed by US Highway 11 West.
In the late years of the 18th century and into the early 19th, these paths attracted hordes of settlers, but also highwaymen and bandits who preyed like wolves on the unwary travelers, which gave rise to many stories and legends in these parts. Kathryn Tucker Windham, the great Alabama storyteller, published her version of one of these legends from the small town of Surgoinsville in her 1977 book, 13 Tennessee Ghosts and Jeffrey.
The opening parts of her story, which are likely fictional, describe a common sighting of the “Long Dog” on the road just northeast of Surgoinsville. However, the heart of her piece includes the legend of the “Long Dog” and the experience of Marcus Hamblen, a member of a prominent local family. The legend that she confers involves one of the most famous of the bandits to haunt the state of Tennessee: the infamous John Murrell.
Known as the “Great Western Land Pirate” and the “Rob Roy of the Southwest,” John Murrell was among the most notorious of the thieves and highwaymen who prowled the South. Born in Virginia in 1806, Murrell spent his formative years in Williamson County, Tennessee (just outside of Nashville, this county includes Franklin). Around the age of 16, he was imprisoned for horse theft and remained in the state prison in Nashville until 1830. Upon release, he resumed a rollicking life of crime and recruited others to join his band of outlaws. This dubious group primarily operated along the Mississippi River and along the Natchez Trace from Natchez to Nashville until Murrell’s arrest and conviction for stealing a slave in 1834. For this theft, he served ten
years in prison before he was released in 1844 having been reformed. Later that year Murrell died in Pikeville, Tennessee.
It seems, however, that Murrell’s real life does not hold a candle to his oversized legend. Much of his legend was spurred on by an 1835 pamphlet written by one of the primary witnesses against him. This pamphlet accused Murrell of inciting a slave rebellion, one of the top fears for planters of that era. As a result of the pamphlet, slaveholders and law enforcement throughout Mississippi questioned, tortured, and even hung some of their slaves along with white outsiders who were implicated as being members of Murrell’s gang.
Returning to the legend that haunts the landscape outside of Surgoinsville, Murrell and his men attacked a family camping under a large white oak there. The family’s dog attempted to defend his family from the marauders but was as brutally slaughtered as well as his family. As a result, the spirit of this dog has been known to appear to travelers along this road near the old oak.
One of the more remarkable encounters happened to a young man named Marcus Hamblen. Walking the road one night, Hamblen was shocked to see a luminous and abnormally long dog approach from behind the old white oak. Hamblen picked up a fence rail and swung it at the animal when it got close enough, but the rail passed cleanly through the creature. As he ran the dog continued his pace until the phantom disappeared suddenly at a particular curve in the road. Hamblen supposedly kept his eye out for the curious canine and continued to see his spectral friend many more times.
Since the old road was paved and named the Lee Highway, sightings of the luminous Long Dog have grown fewer and fewer. Since the Lee Highway was designated US Route 11 West, sightings have nearly stopped, though the white oak is still alive and continues to preside over the now four-lane highway. It should be noted that the oak is on private property, though it can easily be viewed from the road.
This area is no stranger to spectral activity. Heading north from Surgoinsville, just past the old white oak, turn left onto Stoney Point Road. After a short distance, the road turns a corner and a marvelous antebellum brick building comes into view, this is Maxwell Academy. Built around 1852, this building was originally used by the congregation of New Providence Presbyterian Church and also utilized by a school established by the church. The building that still stands was constructed on this site in 1901, to replace the original structure lost in a fire. It seems that the voices of children are still heard within the old building. Justin Guess notes that during an ice cream social held in the building guests were treated by sounds above them, though no one was upstairs.
After the academy building became too cramped to hold both the students and the church, a new church was constructed across the road. It should be noted that the congregation of New Hope Presbyterian Church(214 Stoney Point Road) was among the earliest congregations founded in the state of Tennessee, having been founded in nearby Carter’s Valley in 1780. The church moved to this site around 1800 and the peaceful cemetery surrounding the church dates to this time.
Among the souls who rest here is Colonel George Maxwell, a veteran of the American Revolution who served at the Battle of Kings Mountain. After Maxwell’s death in 1822, a legend has sprouted that a large black dog guards his grave. It is unknown if this dog is the spirit of a former companion or just a spectral guardian protecting the spirit of the military veteran. In addition to this curious canine, phantom footsteps are supposed to be heard around this grave at night.
Brown, John Norris. “The Legend of the Long Dog.” Ghosts and Spirits of Tennessee (now defunct). Accessed 18 July 2017.
Brown, John Norris. “New Providence Church.” Ghosts and Spirits of Tennessee (now defunct). Accessed 18 July 2017.
Grigsby, Blanche. National Register of Historic Places nomination form for New Providence Presbyterian Church, Academy, and Cemetery. 8 March 1976.
Guess, Justin H. Weird Tri-Cities: Hawkins County, Tennessee. Kindle Edition, 2012.
Libby, David J. “John Murrell.” Mississippi Encyclopedia. 11 July 2017.
Sakowski, Carolyn. Touring the East Tennessee Backroads. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 1993.
Windham, Kathryn Tucker. 13 Tennessee Ghosts and Jeffrey. Tuscaloosa, AL: U. of AL University Press, 1977.
N.B. This article was originally published as part of “Preserving Haunted History—Tennessee” in 2012. With this update on the structure, this section has been broken out into a new article.
Tennessee State Prison 6410 Centennial Boulevard Nashville, Tennessee
The hulking Tennessee State Prison perched above the Cumberland River has recently been the scene of a prison strike. This strike, however, did not involve prisoners or guards, but a powerful EF3 tornado.
Around 12:30 CST on March 3rd, this powerful tornado touched down near the John C. Tune Airport, which received a tremendous blow before the twister crossed the Cumberland River. Crossing over Briley Parkway and bearing down on the old Victorian prison. Having been put out of commission in 1992 and only used for storage by the state Department of Corrections, the site was thankfully unoccupied by the living.
The tornado’s strike on the seemingly impregnable brick and stone facility caused the walls of the east cellblock to collapse. The prison’s main building, which sits just in front of the cellblocks with an array of castle-like turrets and a high-pitched roof, lost parts of its roof and blew many of the windows out. A nearby building housing records was demolished.
After crossing the Cumberland again, the tornado bore down in North and East Nashville, claiming several lives and causing extensive damage before heading east into Wilson County. Another tornado touched down in Putnam County about an hour later and claimed 18 lives as it moved towards Cookeville.
With the widespread damage done at the Tennessee State Prison, there are now questions as to what to do with the massive historic facility. Since its closure, the building has been used for storage and a news story several years ago reported that while the building was well built, that there were no plans to restore the building or hold tours due to the presence of asbestos and other dangerous materials.
The prison opened in 1898 to replace the old prison, which had been built in 1830. The new prison was constructed using prisoner labor and after opening, outbuildings were constructed using salvaged materials from the old prison. The day the prison opened, some 1400 prisoners were transferred into the facility which had been built to house only 800. For almost a century, the prison was overcrowded, and the treatment of prisoners was one of the issues driving the creation of Riverbend Maximum Security Institution nearby.
When the prison closed in 1992, an injunction was issued preventing the state from ever using the prison to house inmates again. While the building has sat abandoned, it has been used as a set for a variety of movies including Earnest Goes to Jail and The Green Mile. It has also been used for television and recently was used for the video for Pillar’s “Bring Me Down.” Guards now patrol the grounds keeping away the criminal and the curious.
Like hospitals and battlefields, most prisons tend to have paranormal activity. Visitors to the Tennessee State Prison have reported numerous sounds including the sound of the heavy metal doors closing. Other visitors have encountered apparitions of prisoners in the corridors and exercise yards while people passing by have reported seeing faces peering from the windows.
It is unknown what effect the tornado’s damage will have on the prison’s paranormal populace, though, I imagine that it will continue to have activity very much like the Kentucky State Penitentiary. Even if the state decides to demolish the magnificent building, I believe that the land has been imprinted with much of the negative energy and the site will remain haunted for centuries to come.
Morris, Jeff, Donna Marsh and Garett Merk. Nashville Haunted Handbook. Cincinnati, OH: Clerisy Press, 2011.