Tag Archives: Podcast

TN G&L Episode 7: Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary

Due to graphic descriptions, parental discretion is advised for this episode.

Petros, Tennessee

Welcome to the Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast. My name is Lyle Russell. I am your host, and I love a good ghost story. On today’s episode, we’ll discuss some of the frightening tales told by the guards, employees and inmates who spent time for one reason or another behind the haunted walls of the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. Due to descriptions of violent crimes from the prison, listener discretion is advised.

During the Reconstruction period following the American Civil War, East Tennessee saw a boom in construction primarily based around its rich coal mines and rapid railroad expansion. As with any mining prospects, the most remote and hard to reach areas were the richest in resources. With that limited geographical access, mining companies would house their workers near the mine to increase operational efficiency. They would also provide “company stores”, where miners could purchase goods and sundries, often at inflated prices and leaving the worker owing more to the company for supplies than they actually earned in wages; a debt they could never escape.

Tennessee Ernie Ford’s song, “Sixteen Tons.” One stanza says:

If you see me comin’, better step aside,
A lotta men didn’t, a lotta men died.
One fist of iron, the other of steel,
If the right one don’t get you,
Then the left one will.

You load 16 tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
St. Peter, don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go,
I owe my soul to the company store.

The sixteen tons he refers to is the amount of coal mined by a miner in a day, yet whatever was harvested was never enough to dig the miner out of debt to the mining company. His lyrics paint a picture of the type of person who would work these mines; their toughness, swagger, and an eager willingness to use their fists to solve a dispute. It also tells us that at the end of the day, the miner was simply too indebted to die no matter how hard they worked, owing money as well as their soul to the company store. Even with such a mantra, many did die in those mines and left debts their families could never repay. Those who remained were at a simmering boil, ready at any moment to lash out in frustration with being taken advantage of by the mining companies.

This broken system was becoming untenable for both the miner and the mining company. The poor relationship between them was always at a breaking point due to work stoppages, low pay, and hazardous working conditions. This constant strained connection led mining companies to seek new sources of cheap labor, and they found it in the state’s convict lease system.

One of the other industries that boomed during Reconstruction was crime and there was no shortage of prisoners. Tennessee began leasing prisoners to all sorts of hard labor industries in 1866, and found a profitable partner in the mining industry, particularly in Anderson and Morgan Counties, northwest of Knoxville. Convict leasing relieved the mining company cost to house workers and gave the state a new source of funding, reducing their costs associated with maintaining prisons. One aspect the state and the mining companies exploited was the 13th amendment loophole of “involuntary servitude” as a sentence. Using this technicality, prisoners were given harsh and unusually long sentences to supply labor throughout the state, especially the African American community. This availability of cheap labor put coal miners out of work, leading to the Coal Creek War in 1891. After that bloody dispute ended, the miners were put back to work, but not every mine used their hard-won contract labor and still relied on prisoners. Two years later in 1893, the state legislature gave the go-ahead to build the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in nearby Petros, Tennessee; the state’s only maximum-security prison intended as a home for the worst of the worst.

As stated in a previous episode, a common thought in the paranormal community is that areas experiencing great tragedy, suffering, and violence tend to retain the negative energy that comes with it. Brushy Mountain is definitely one such place. For many of the most hardened criminals that had proven too much for other prisons to handle, Brushy Mountain was their “last stop, end-of-the-line” prison. It was here they were sent to serve out their sentences or die, whichever came first. Many would never see the outside world again, serving consecutive life sentences varying from 80 to 316 years for their crimes. From the early mining days until the prison closed for good in 2009, over 10,000 people lost their lives on this small patch of land with many being from terrible and violent ways. So much suffering and death was bound to leave a troubling spiritual residue. In addition, a common paranormal belief is that spirits cannot cross bodies of water. Brushy Mountain is surrounded by running creeks completely on three sides. If that belief is true, then the property will remain a prison for the souls that are supposedly still there even after the living are gone.

The original wooden structure was built, ironically, in a pattern of a cross from the air, trying to harness the only blessing those confined to its walls would ever receive. It was constructed by the prisoners themselves in a rugged and isolated bowl of the surrounding mountains, giving it an even more lonely feel and used the natural terrain as an additional security measure. Cliffs and dense forest surround three sides of the stockade and make escape nearly impossible. The location was chosen intentionally for that reason, as well as its proximity to the coal mines. Prisoners were filed in and out of the mines daily. Some on their feet, others feet first. For them, that was the only escape from the hellish conditions inside the prison. Stories tell of brutal beatings and hangings in the early years as the vicious reputation of the penitentiary spread. Another constant source of misery was the regular outbreaks of illness and fever, most of which went untreated. Those who survived the mines and the violent tendencies of their cellmates often succumbed to disease or decided to end their suffering on their own. A graveyard exists on the property where expired inmates were buried. The headstones have long since been removed but the bodies remain interred; unmarked and unknown.

In the 1920s, a reconstruction of the prison began using stone harvested from the property, again by cheap prison labor. The wooden complex slowly became the monstrous, castle-like structure that still stands today, a monument to the broken men that built it. Within those walls, hope was lost. One article written in 1982 while Brushy Mountain still actively housed prisoners said, “violence in prisons is more the rule than the exception.” At Brushy Mountain it was the standard from the beginning. Many early stories of the violent deaths inside the prison were not recorded and lost to history. However, some of the gruesome tales are still told. One in particular tells of a fight that broke out in the cafeteria between two inmates, leaving one chopped up into so many pieces that the guards claimed that when they lifted his body to take to the morgue, most of his back remained on the floor. What remained was so badly mutilated that parts of him were flushed down a toilet. The kitchen and cafeteria were the site of many violent interactions, another of which saw an inmate’s arm severed in an altercation while an accomplice to the crime chopped the victim’s spinal cord in two with a meat cleaver.

Other random acts of violence occurred throughout the prison grounds. Another story of a ghost that haunts the death row building is named Leroy. He was a prison yard bully and was mean just because he could be. One day, one of his victims took matters into his own hands, waiting for Leroy to have his back turned in the exercise area and stabbed him to death while he was doing pull-ups. Paranormal investigators have recorded a disembodied voice whispering “Leroy” when asking if anyone was in that area, and some have complained of mysterious scratch marks appearing on their arms. Another inmate, a little person named Jack Jett, was found to be a snitch. One of the inmates he ratted out waited until he was distracted and on the phone with his mother, then stabbed him 19 times in the neck. His ghost haunts the phone bank, causing investigators to experience extreme dread and intense cold spots near where he was attacked. Some prisoners claimed they would sometimes see the phone receiver float off and on its hook.

The last place with the claim of the most spiritually active on the property is the prison chapel. EVP recordings from multiple investigations have recorded disembodied voices within, some clearly saying hell, beast and pain. Photographs in the chapel have multiple orbs, commonly thought by paranormal investigators to be a form of manifested spirit energy. Inmates have claimed for years to witness objects suddenly float from one area to another inside the small sanctuary and incredibly intense cold spots. Some would joke about going to the chapel during the excruciatingly hot summers and braving the ghosts just to get cooled off.

Brushy Mountain did house an electric chair and most records indicate there were over 100 executions during the prison’s tenure, but there are conflicting records on how those executions were actually carried out. Many say “old sparky” was never used while it was there until it moved to the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville, and some say the executions were all by chair. By the time of this recording, I could not find definitive evidence to support one claim or the other.

Racial tensions were prevalent in the prison from the earliest days of construction, particularly when the prison housed the assassin of Martin Luther King Jr. James Earl Ray is one of the more infamous inmates at Brushy Mountain and there were gang factions within the walls that meant him harm. When Ray arrived, many of the African American prisoners were upset being in the same vicinity as King’s assassin and threatened his life. There were also white gangs active in the prison and the rivalries regularly turned deadly. Some accounts say Ray was well-liked by the majority of the prisoners, though I do not subscribe to that theory since Ray was assaulted more than once during his time at Brushy Mountain by black inmates, including one incident where he was stabbed 22 times.

Many of the African American prisoners claimed for multiple nights they could hear sawing on metal as white gang members tried to cut their way out of their cells using tools made from scraps found around the prison, guitar strings, and carbide jeweler chains. Their goal was to kill their black gang rivals when they were locked in their cells on the third level. One white gang that called themselves The Magnificent Seven were able to get a smuggled .25 caliber pistol inside the prison. Finally, on February 8th, 1982, they succeeded in sawing their way out of their cells and execute their vendetta against the black inmates in the segregated cell block. The seven went from cell to cell on tier 3 seeking out their rivals and shooting several of them through the bars. They would then jam the doors to delay medical assistance and took four guards as hostages. After a 45-minute tear through the third level cells, the seven surrendered to the prison medic and a deputy warden. Two of the victims died from the gunshot wounds with many others wounded.

It is believed the shootings were retaliation against members of one black gang for stabbing James Earl Ray just days before the hostage incident: one of many racially motivated attacks in the prison’s 113-year history. An associate warden at that time is quoted as saying, “The gangs here are groups of predatory career criminals with a history of assaultive incidents preying on weaker inmates. They’ll prey blacks on blacks, whites on whites and on each other. They try this on society, and they get locked up in places like this. But in here they don’t have the same constraints.”

In one paranormal investigation I read about, an investigator claims to have played Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream Speech while sitting in James Earl Ray’s cell and recorded a disembodied voice saying “hush”. There are many recordings of strange sounds, footsteps, loud bangs and even the sounds of anguished crying. In one amateur investigation, two metal folding chairs in the cafeteria were filmed sliding roughly across the floor like they were being dragged. Tour guides also claim almost daily sightings of apparitions. Some appear as solid as a normal person yet are not there. Others are dark swirling and nebulous masses reminiscent of the evil energy that has plagued the prison since it was built. One unsettling story claims there have been sightings of a crawling ghost in the auditorium known as the creeper. The story says after an altercation in the auditorium during a movie, an inmate had his throat cut with a handmade prison knife. The guards put him in a padded room without medical attention where he eventually bled to death and his anguished spirit is sometimes seen crawling on all fours across the floor.

One of those who died in the retaliatory shooting was an African American inmate named James, and there are stories that if you leave a lit cigarette on the bars of the cell he died in, he will take drags from that cigarette. In one investigation I watched on YouTube, the investigator tried this experiment in James’s cell with his camera rolling and his flashlight off, only leaving the lit cigarette visible in the frame. When the investigator speaks out to James, the red herring on the cigarette flares as if being smoked. He immediately turns the light on to see a large puff of smoke come from the cigarette like an exhale, yet there was no one there but him. If it was a hoax, it was a convincing one. While I am a skeptic at heart, based on what I could see and the reaction of the investigator, the footage appeared unaltered; both the cigarette and the chairs being dragged across the floor. While I can’t say for certain these are not staged, the footage was convincing enough for me to believe they were genuine paranormal encounters.

So, what haunts the grounds and cells of Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary? Do the spirits of those who died in such a tragic place remain? In the prison’s files, the inmates consisted of murderers, serial killers, rapists, and the worst of the worst of Tennessee’s violent criminals. One research statistic stated while the prison was in operation, it averaged one murder per week and that the guards rarely had full control of the prison. After one visit to Brushy Mountain, a Nashville attorney is quoted as saying, “It was like walking into the mouth of hell.” The same associate warden I quoted earlier on gang violence in the prison later told a Washington Post reporter, “We get the hard-to-manage inmates. That’s the function of this institution. It’s the end of the line. They’re serving long sentences, they’re in close confinement. You do that to a bunch of rats, and they start chewing on each other. Humans are not so different.”

Brushy Mountain closed officially in 2009 and all remaining inmates were sent to serve out their sentences at the more modern Morgan County Correctional Complex. Now the former prison is home of a distillery, restaurant, and event venue along with multiple opportunities for tours, both historical and paranormal. Some parts of the facility have been permanently closed, such as the solitary confinement block, known affectionately as “The Hole”, but most is still open for guided as well as overnight paranormal flashlight-only investigations. The cells are open for explorers and investigators alike. Even though the remaining prisoners were transferred out, there is little doubt that those stone walls are still a prison to the spirits that remain.

Thank you for listening to today’s Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast episode. I cordially invite you to visit my website at www.lylerussell.net if you’d like to learn more about this and other stories I’m working on. I am your host, Lyle Russell, and remember, the dead may seem scary, but it’s the living you should be wary of. Until next time.

Listen to this episode here: Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary

TN G&L Episode 6: The Mysterious Death of Meriwether Lewis

Natchez Trace Parkway near Hohenwald, Tennessee
Natchez Trace Parkway near Hohenwald, Tennessee

Welcome to the Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast. My name is Lyle Russell. I am your host, and I love a good ghost story, as well as a good history legend. On today’s episode, I’ll share with you the strange circumstances behind one of America’s most recognizable names in its early exploration and try to shed light on the mysterious death of Meriwether Lewis.

Shortly before sunrise on October 11th, 1809, at the age of 35, Meriwether Lewis took his last breath. Mrs. Priscilla Grinder, proprietor of Grinder’s Stand, a makeshift tavern and inn on the Natchez Trace, was likely the last person to see him alive. According to her account given to Lewis’ traveling companion and Indian Agent James Neelly, the famed Governor of the Louisiana Territory, military Captain, confidante of President Thomas Jefferson and heralded explorer of the western frontier arrived alone at Grinder’s Stand in a deranged state. His behavior left her feeling unsafe, so she gave up the larger cabin for his sole use and slept in an adjacent kitchen building with Lewis’s servants taking up residence in the stable nearby. No one occupied the main cabin except for Lewis.

At around 3am, Mrs. Grinder was awakened by the cracking sound of two gunshots from the main cabin. She woke his servants to investigate, and in his report from interviewing Mrs. Grinder, Neelly wrote “He had shot himself in the head with one pistol and a little below the breast with the other—When his servant came in, he says; I have done the business. My good servant, give me some water. He gave him some, he survived but a short time.” This is the account that was hastily written by Agent Neelly and sent to President Thomas Jefferson to inform him of his friend’s death.

A few months later, another friend of Lewis’s, an ornithologist named Alexander Wilson, was traveling near the Stand and decided to inquire about the circumstances of his friend’s death first-hand. He took a room at the inn, the same one Lewis died in, and arranged to meet with Mrs. Grinder. In this account, she gave much more detail that either she failed to tell Neelly or details he felt unnecessary to include in his report. Nevertheless, this new interview revealed additional detailed information. Wilson is credited with conducting the first real investigation of Lewis’s bizarre death.

She told Wilson that Lewis arrived alone that night but assured her that his traveling companions and servants would be along soon and he would need one night’s lodging. In the tavern, he ordered spirits but drank very little, and at supper time, he ate even less. She stated he would frequently have conversations with himself, sometimes violently, only occasionally addressing her with kindly pleasantries, such as “What a sweet evening it is,” and, “Madam, this is a very pleasant evening.” She said he took his pipe and paced the floor, continuing to speak to no one but himself.

She then told Wilson that she offered to set the bed for him, but he politely declined, claiming he was only comfortable sleeping on the floor. He requested his free servant, named John Pernier, bring him his buffalo robe and bearskins. She left the main cabin to him and retired to another one nearby with her children and servants.

Mrs. Grinder said that Lewis’s disturbing behavior kept her awake most of that night. She claims she could hear him pacing the floor in the neighboring cabin and talking to himself “like a lawyer.”, She had finally dozed off when the sudden crack of gunfire startled her awake, along with Lewis’s scream of “O, Lord!” Then, just a moment later, a second shot rang out. Immediately after, Lewis came pounding on her door shouting, “O Madam! Give me some water and heal my wounds!” but she did not unbar the door out of fear. Weakened and bleeding, she watched Lewis stagger his way back into his room. At sunrise, she sent her children to fetch the servants from their beds in the stables to investigate. They found Lewis still alive lying on the bed in frightening condition. One of the gunshots had torn away part of his forehead, leaving his brain exposed but with surprisingly little blood. He was conscious enough to raise his shirt and show the servants the second wound in his side. He reportedly begged the servant to take up his own rifle and finish him off. “I am no coward,” he said, “but I am so strong; so hard to die.” They could not bear the thought of doing any such thing, and Lewis mercifully passed away shortly after.  Some versions of this tale also say Lewis was cut to ribbons by his own straight razor he apparently used in a haphazard attempt to remove the bullets himself, speeding the loss of blood and his death.

The second version offers more details, though it is difficult to say why Agent Neelly would be so negligent in his report of such an untimely and awful death and omit so much. There are some who believe he may have been short on details to spare such a vaunted person as Meriwether Lewis the indignity of a gruesome end. Not all are convinced his motives were pure and that he had a hand in Lewis’s demise, keeping his report short to obscure his involvement, but more on that later. Now comes a third account, related by Mrs. Grinder some thirty years after that tragic night to a schoolteacher from the Cherokee Nation inquiring about the infamous and mysterious death. Many of the details were the same, though significant parts of the story had changed, making the already bizarre tale even more so.

In this account, there is an addition of three unknown men who arrived on Lewis’s heels and a confrontation ensued. She said Lewis drew his pistols and admonished them to leave, which they did. The rest of the story stays relatively the same until the fateful moment where she now claimed there were three pistol shots instead of two, and that she did not send her children to wake the servants as they were already in Lewis’s cabin. She now claims she was surprised to see them coming from the stables to Lewis’s aid where she thought they’d shared the cabin with him, leaving her to question why they left the cabin. She was also surprised to see Pernier wearing Lewis’s clothes; in fact, the very same clothing that Lewis was wearing when he arrived. She said he told her that Lewis had given him the garments, but he did not know why. Then, discovering that Lewis was gone, they departed to search along the Trace for the missing governor, only to find him wounded on the trail wearing Pernier’s tattered clothing and badly wounded.

Whether or not the changed parts of the story are hidden truths emerging over time, a poor accounting of the tale by the schoolteacher, or the poor memory of an aged Priscilla Grinder is unknown. Historians agree on one thing: there is little in this entire story that they can agree on. The popular theory is this whole affair was the tragic suicide of an American icon who suffered from depression, but there are others who believe this tragedy to be a murder most foul. To determine which theory is most plausible, we need to establish why Meriwether Lewis was traveling the Natchez Trace in the first place.

After his astounding three-year expedition to the Pacific Ocean and back, one of Meriwether Lewis’s life goals was to arrange his extensive journals of the trek into a publication that would satiate the ravenous public that was eager to consume the chronology of the expedition’s adventures. Lewis wanted to beat the speculative publications to print and reveal the tale from his point of view, not some printer with wild imaginations. He struggled to reach this goal because his pesky official duties got in the way. To compound his frustrations, the bureaucracy in Washington, even in Lewis’s day, was more hinderance than help, and they refused his expense reports while debating his honesty in reporting. These personal affronts irritated him so badly that he decided a face-to-face confrontation with those who denied his integrity was the only way to restore his reputation. In addition, he would use this trip to finally present his papers to the Philadelphia publishers for publication. Lewis became a man on a mission.

His journey started from St. Louis by river heading for New Orleans, where he planned to by sail around the Florida straits and up the eastern seaboard, but that’s when things turned sour. Lewis became seriously ill shortly after departure. Upon stopping at Fort Pickering near modern-day Memphis, the fort’s commander demanded Lewis stay, in the commander’s words, “until he recovered, or some friend might arrive whose hands he could depart in safety.”

Lewis was the medic for The Corps of Discovery and carried an extensive medical knowledge as well as a medicine chest for every occasion. He still religiously kept a journal of this time and writes about having a “bilious fever”, and mentioned having access to laudanum, opium, and tartar pills. Some historians think he may have developed an addiction to opium that led to his steep mental decline. He wrote to then-President James Madison, informing him that the heat and concern over his personal journals falling into the hands of British spies changed his travel plans. He would now take horses to Washington overland through Tennessee; a decision that turned out to be fatal.

In 1809, the fledgling United States was again on the brink of war with England, and New Orleans might not be a welcoming city for him since former Louisiana Territory Governor and General James Wilkinson’s treasonous acts alongside the Spanish Government were discovered. Wilkinson was holed up in New Orleans with American troops under his command, which also gave him command of passage in and out of the Mississippi River. Many historians agree that Lewis, having access to Wilkinson’s gubernatorial papers, likely found out about the former governor’s bribes taken from the Spanish government and was more afraid of falling into Wilkinson’s hands than the British. In any case, while waiting to recover enough to continue his journey, Agent Neelly arrived at Fort Pickering on his way to Nashville and agreed to accompany Lewis’s party at least that far. After ten days of rest, they loaded two of Lewis’s four trunks of journals to a pack horse and left two stored at the fort to be shipped later. On September 29th, Lewis, along with his servant Pernier, Neelly and his servant, and several friendly Chickasaw Indians, departed the fort. Ten days later, Meriwether Lewis would be dead.

After the ghastly events at Grinder’s Stand, John Pernier immediately departed straight for Virginia to find Thomas Jefferson and report what had happened. Jefferson received Pernier’s report with a sad acceptance of the cause of death being suicide, relating that Lewis, “had from his early youth suffered from hypochondriac afflictions inherited by him from his father.” Jefferson took the news hard. He always thought of Meriwether Lewis as the son he never had. Once Pernier delivered his report to Jefferson, he visited Lewis’s family to deliver the sad news and receive his final wages. The family was not so convinced of the suicide story and accused Pernier of killing his master.

About seven months after Lewis’s death, Pernier met his end, with the tale saying his throat was cut ear to ear. However, a man who was boarding with him informed Jefferson the Pernier, facing accusations of murder, took his own life by consuming a full bottle of laudanum. We know Jefferson took this news just as hard, as Pernier was a former servant of his before going to work for Lewis, and said in a later writing to a friend, “You will probably know the fate of old Pierney, Lewis’s servant, who lately followed his master’s example.” Jefferson believed his death was a suicide, but much like Lewis’s demise, many others believe it was more sinister.

On a beautiful Fall morning in October of 2019, my youngest son and I made the nearly 2-hour drive from Tullahoma to Hohenwald, Tennessee, where nearby, there is a National Parks site along the Natchez Trace Parkway dedicated to the final resting place of Meriwether Lewis. The Park is a beautiful section carved out of an even more beautiful wilderness. Hardly a landscape you would think would be the home to such a gruesome scene as Lewis’s death. The Park is small in size but grand in history. A recreation of Grinder’s Stand sits nestled among the trees next to the remains of the original building, now reduced to a few stones of foundation left in the clearing. At the back of the park, a connecting driveway circles a large cemetery, appropriately named Pioneer Cemetery, that holds the unmarked grave of Meriwether Lewis, among other local pioneers that settled the area.

There is a granite monument for Lewis, even though his grave in the cemetery is unmarked. For years, many have petitioned the Parks Service to allow an exhumation of Lewis’s body to solve the mystery once and for all on how he died. The theories vary wildly, from suicide to murder to madness to disease.

My son and I at the Meriwether Lewis monument
My son and I at the Meriwether Lewis monument

Some historians believe Lewis’s strange actions could have been from a severe bout with Syphilis, which if left untreated, can lead to mental disorders as well as brain and neurological damage. There is speculation he may have also contracted malaria, as indicated by his bout of “bilious fever”, in Lewis’s words, when he stopped at Fort Pickering. Malaria, if left untreated, also leads to bizarre behavior and dementia. Critics of this theory cite his hypochondriacal tendencies as the answer to his death coming from disease. They believe Lewis would never have let an illness or infection go without some treatment to counter the effects.

If that argument is true, could his cause of death have been from his ample stocks of medical opium? If he had hypochondriacal tendencies, as Jefferson said, he could very well have fallen victim to a chemical dependency in trying to stave off a real or imagined illness. According to the Mayo Clinic website, side effects linked to opium include confusion, hallucination, mood and mental changes, nervousness, sleeplessness, and disorientation among many others. Mrs. Grinder described observing Lewis exhibit several of those symptoms on that fateful night.

Perhaps the easiest answer is that he committed suicide. He was no doubt under severe stress and pressure from his fame and position, and if that was compounded with opium or untreated Syphilis, the toll may have been too much for him to bear. It is said that near the end of his life, Lewis regularly took to the bottle to drown his sorrows. It is also believed that even though the Lewis and Clark Expedition was a resounding success, he often felt the trek was a failure, citing the primary reason for the whole trip was to find the Northwest Passage, and even though they made it to the Pacific Ocean with only one life lost, they did not find the passage. To add insult to the injury, all their hard work in establishing trading outposts crumbled even before the Corps of Discovery returned home. Finally, after such a grand adventure and raucous homecoming, Meriwether Lewis was not thrilled with the drudgery of what amounted to a glorified desk job.

Or after all of that, could he have been murdered? Lewis’s own mother believed that to be the case. At the time of his travels, the Natchez Trace was not a safe or hospitable road. Bandits and highwaymen roamed the area preying on anyone who carried valuables. It’s possible that word of the famous explorer’s route preceded him, and some of these scoundrels looked to profit from robbing or kidnapping the famed Meriwether Lewis. One version of this theory states an infamous bandit on the trace named Tom Runions may be the murderer. Runions was known for violent behavior toward anyone who dared speak about his illegal dealings. Some believe maybe Robert Grinder plotted against his famous guest for his money, putting his wife up to spinning the tale of suicide to throw off any suspicion. When the monument at the park was erected in the 1840s, his exhumed body was examined by a coroner’s jury committee who noted that it was probable that he died at the hands of an assassin but did not complete the documentation as to why they believed that. Records of that committee’s findings would have been filed in the judge’s docket book, which seems to have been lost to history. No one knows what was in their final report to the judge.

Perhaps the danger of his predecessor’s treason was greater than previously thought. If Lewis was carrying evidence of General Wilkinson’s foul deeds, was Lewis assassinated to cover up the crime? Or was Indian Agent James Neelly involved in a murder plot? His own journals call some of his decisions on the Trace that week into question, such as sending his servant forward with Lewis and remaining behind to look for a missing horse. Some think it peculiar that a man traveling with a servant would take on a task so menial. A few years after Lewis’s death, Neelly was dismissed from his post for incompetence, and his lackluster account of Lewis’s death has always drawn suspicion. One critic of the suicide theory states that Lewis was no ordinary traveler and compares his presence to the celebrity level of Neil Armstrong returning from the moon. This same critic proposes an interesting question about the manner of death in citing that Lewis was an expert marksman. He argues how someone with Lewis’s skill could botch a point-blank suicide attempt with a weapon he would have been as familiar with as his own hand, not just once, but twice?

At the end of the day, the answer is simply that no one knows for certain how Lewis died. Among the many efforts underway to exhume his body for a second time, scholars advocating in favor of examining his body again claim they could determine if his death was suicide or an overdose, or disease or murder. Others remain skeptical a new exhumation would reveal anything of value to solve the mystery. When I asked at the park visitor’s center, the attendant told me and my son that Lewis is not actually buried under the 1840 granite marker and was done that way intentionally. He told us the real grave is unmarked on the property due to lawlessness at that time on Natchez Trace. He then said the decision was somewhat prophetic with the renewed interest in digging him up again, just in case someone advocating for another exhumation decided to take matters illegally into their own hands. I’ve searched several cemetery records but cannot determine if that story is true, however, it makes some semblance of sense to me if there were concerns over grave robbers looking for a famous grave to dig up.

Even over 200 years later, locals near the Park claim that Meriwether Lewis’s death is no mystery at all but an obvious matter of jealous rage. In one article I read, a local resident claims that, “everyone knows what happened. Robert Grinder came home that night and found Meriwether Lewis in bed with his wife and shot him. The rest of the story she just made up.”

Is that how one of arguably the most famous explorers of early America died? From the rage of a jealous husband? Or did illness overtake him? Perhaps an overdose? Or had he decided his burdens were too great and ended his own life? This Tennessee legend is likely one that will never be solved.

Thank you for listening to today’s Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast episode. If you’d like to read more about this and other stories I’m working on, I cordially invite you to visit my website at www.lylerussell.net. I am your host, Lyle Russell, and remember, the dead may seem scary, but it’s the living you should be wary of. Until next time.

Listen to this episode here: The Mysterious Death of Meriwether Lewis

TN G&L Episode 5: The Beast of the Land Between the Lakes

Due to graphic descriptions, parental discretion is advised for this episode

The Land Between the Lakes, Tennessee and Kentucky

Welcome to the Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast. My name is Lyle Russell. I am your host, and I love a good ghost story. On today’s episode, you’ll hear three disturbing tales of a cryptid creature with a murderous appetite in a popular National Park called the Land Between the Lakes. Allow me to introduce you to The Beast of LBL.

There are stories worldwide of supernatural occurrences in places with dense forested areas. The National Park area known as The Land Between the Lakes covers over 267 square miles of natural woodlands split by the Tennessee and Kentucky border and flanked by Kentucky Lake and the Cumberland River. The Park is a popular outdoors destination that hosts one and a half million visitors annually. A handful of those visitors have encountered a cryptid-like creature described as a bigfoot, a dog man, or a werewolf. While those three have striking differences, each has been reported at different times throughout the history of the park. The first incident we’ll discuss today is related by a gas station attendant named Jan Thompson who worked near the park in the early 80s. This is a paraphrased version of what is supposedly a hand-written third-person account of that night by Mrs. Thompson.

On an uneventful night around 3am, two police officers who were regulars at this gas station pulled in under the pump canopy. In Jan’s written account, she has left the officers unnamed to protect their identity. For the rest of this story, we’ll use the aliases she gave them of Officer Bill and Officer Adam. Instead of their usual jovial banter with Jan, Officer Adam collapsed himself onto the curb and vomited everything his stomach could muster. Jan watched through the window as Officer Bill did his best to comfort his partner, but was also visibly shaken by whatever malady had befallen them. Jan came out to find out what was wrong, offering some Rolaids and refreshments. Neither said much outside of fragmented and incoherent sentences for a span of several minutes, only repeating, “I can’t believe it, it’s just not possible,” or, “I’ve never seen anything like that before.” When Adam raised his head, Jan could see dried blood on his face and neck. Jan was curious but didn’t press for more information. She could not imagine what could have disturbed these officers so badly. In her words, “Adam’s bottom lip was trembling slightly, and it wasn’t from the slight chill in the late spring air. Someone or something had filled them each with a congested fear.” After a short while, they calmed some and began their story.

They had been called to assist with a remote site investigation within LBL. It was the beginning of tourist season, and some early arrivals had already staked claim to the prime remote spots throughout the park. Sometimes disagreements would erupt between campers wanting the same site, so an occasional call to the remote areas was not unusual. They arrived at the scene around sunset to find several other official vehicles and investigators already there. Among them were other police cruisers, an ambulance, and a coroner’s van. Before them was a parked motor home with the door hanging on by one hinge. A campfire lit the immediate vicinity that whoever was camping there surely built. Flashlight beams were splitting the usually silent forest surrounding the campsite, and occasionally illuminated what appeared to be bloody hand prints on the walls of the motor home.

Bloody hand prints were insignificant to the carnage they witnessed as they walked into the site. Body parts were strewn everywhere. Shredded clothing, severed limbs, and internal organs were thrown about like confetti at a child’s party. Many on the scene had already lost their composure and their dinner at the gruesome scene. Adam and Bill asked another officer on scene what had happened. He told them a newlywed couple on a hike had discovered what they were now looking at and fled into town to call the police. So far, they identified three separate bodies; a father and mother with their young son best they could tell, and they weren’t sure what the murder weapon was that caused such devastation. The coroner overheard the report and interrupted them with an answer. He stated there was no murder weapon at all; that the bodies had been torn apart by teeth and claws. Adam asked if this was a bear attack. The other officer said bears were not native to the area, but anything was possible. He added it may have been a mountain lion or a wolf. The coroner dismissed that explanation.

“These are not from a mountain lion or a wolf,” he said. “The teeth and jaws are far too big for that.”

The coroner showed Adam and Bill on a larger portion of what was identified as the father’s torso four distinct cuts made by claws, “at least 2 inches long,” he said. “But the bites are what confuses me. The depth of the jaw is much larger than a bear, meaning this beast has a longer snout.”

Suddenly, an officer burst from the ransacked motor home holding a little girl’s dress. “There’s a fourth!” he shouted. “Look for a little girl. We might have a survivor!” They regained as much professionalism as they could and renewed their search. The officers formed a line and marched into the surrounding woods, calling for anyone who could still be out there. After a few minutes of searching, a shrieking scream pierced the night. Bill ran towards the scream alongside the other officer he and Adam first met at the scene. When they came upon Adam, he was kneeling to the ground and sobbing. Bill shined his light onto Adam’s face, asking what made him scream. His tears streaked through the wet blood on his face. Adam pointed up. Their flashlight beams traveled up the nearby tree trunk and into the canopy. The officers jumped back with a start.

Dangling from a high limb was a small and lifeless hand, and on the other side of it a pale leg with a white sock still over the foot. They had found the little girl, and she did not survive. Shortly after they took down her body from the tree, the coroner said her tiny body had been partially devoured, and clumps of dark brown/gray hair were clutched in her hand and on the bark of the tree. An animal had done this, but of what kind, they had no idea. After a few hours of trying to make sense of it all, a line of dark vehicles came up the road with a new team of investigators to relieve the officers. They gave explicit instructions not to speak of this incident to anyone, especially the media.

About a month later, Adam and Bill returned to the gas station while Jan was working, taking a break from their patrol. She describes them as being different after their harrowing experience. No longer jovial or friendly, but quiet, serious, and withdrawn. They told her that lab tests from the crime scene determined the hair and saliva samples could not be matched to any known species, and that the closest comparison was from Canis lupus, a wolf, and that I should be careful. They explained to her never to mention to anyone that they had told her what happened that night.

The Land Between the Lakes has a long history of strange occurrences. Since the early 1700s, there has been talk of Native American curses on the white settlers moving into the area, of hauntings, of orbs seen floating in several of the more than 220 family cemeteries that dot the park, and creature sightings described as a tall, hairy, wolf-like creature that walked on two legs and could be smelled from a great distance away. It is also said this creature has glowing red eyes. Two possible origin stories of the beast come from early settlement of the area, though neither can be proved. One states a Native American shaman gained the ability to shapeshift into a wolf. At some point, he used this ability in some evil way and was outcast from his tribe. The shaman was hunted down and killed by white settlers while in his wolf form, and with his dying breath, vowed to return and stalk the forests and haunt the settlers and their families.

Another account says the beast is an early European settler who moved with his family to the remote area because of an illness that kept him from controlling his “night rages” and was not fit to live in a populated society. It is said that this man’s illness was passed on to his children and they were all kept locked away in their remote cabin. In either case, there are several accounts of unexplained livestock killings and unidentified howls and wails from deep in the woods. Early settlers complained of losing their cows, pigs, horses and hunting dogs to some predator in the woods that was never identified. At a time when wild Bison still roamed in southern Kentucky and northern Tennessee, hunters and farmers would occasionally find mutilated carcasses of young Bison with the rest of the herd clustered nearby in a tightly knit defensive circle; a behavior displayed when a predator is near. Other than a hunter with a large caliber rifle, not many natural predators prey on Bison. This means whatever killed those calves must be strong, aggressive and relatively fearless.

The second account comes from a group of college students from Murray State University, who took a weekend off to camp in the pristine wilderness of the Land Between the Lakes. On their first night, the young men built a fire and were enjoying the evening when one walked out into the trees to answer the call of nature. He was gone longer than the others thought he should be, and they called out to him. The student came back into the firelight wearing a terrified look and claiming he was being watched and that he heard growls and sniffing coming from the darkness beyond. His friends laughed and teased him of being afraid of the dark, or that he encountered a wild hog or some other benign woodland critter and dismissed the notion.

As the night wore on, they started hearing something just beyond the light of their fire in the surrounding woods. At first, it was the rustling of leaves, like an animal was passing by. But they kept hearing it and quickly determined it was not passing by but encircling them. Each time they shined their flashlights towards the sound, all they would see was the beam of their light on a tree trunk, or a quick blur with no shape or form. Some of them began to believe their friend that something was out there. That’s when the howling began.

A piercing, wailing howl erupted from the brush behind them. They spun to see where it came from only for the sound to erupt again behind them. Whatever it was, it was circling them swiftly. Then, they caught random glimpses of what they thought were red eyes running through the dark. Terror finally overtook them. They piled into their Volkswagen van and sped out of the site, abandoning all of their gear to get away. As the van emerged onto the main road, one of the students looked out the back window to see a large black shape emerge onto the road and chase behind them. As the driver pressed harder on the gas pedal, the VW engine was no match for the creature’s speed. A jolt shook the van as if something grabbed it and was holding it back. The driver pressed the pedal all the way to the floor, breaking free of whatever it was and never letting off until they were far from the park. Upon returning to the campus, the terrified students looked at the back to find the metal around the engine hatch was crumpled and cut through with deep gouges that appeared to be claw marks. Authorities dismissed their claims as a drunken weekend in the woods.

Our final modern-day and arguably more famous account comes from a man named Roger, who claims to be the only survivor of a cryptid attack on another family in another part of the park. This story has a specific date of April 7th, 1982 and is believed to be credible by many members of the cryptid investigative community. He also names the members of the family but omits their last name. Some details of his story have been removed from the sources I found on this due to an upcoming television appearance where he reveals the rest of his story, so this account will have some gaps that will be filled in later.

Roger’s story takes place about an hour before sunset at another remote campsite. Roger was with another family of four that arrived at the park for a vacation. They drove a motor home with a vehicle towed behind it. After unhitching the vehicle and backing into the RV site, the family began setting up their home away from home. The mother and young daughter, Diane and Connie, decided to take a nap inside the camper while the father and son, Levi and Steven gathered firewood for dinner and a campfire for later. One part that is unclear in my research is Roger’s relationship to the family. Perhaps he will reveal that later. Roger was inside the camper preparing to take his shotgun out for target practice by picking up some cans to use for targets. He hears a commotion outside, and suddenly yelling and shouting. He looked out the window inset in the door to see Levi running around the front of the camper, then hears the driver’s door open. Levi takes his shotgun and runs back around to the side where he sees Steven lifted in the air from behind and killed by a black, hairy creature. Levi fired his shotgun, hitting the beast in the shoulder after it dropped Steven’s body.

The shot was not enough to take down the creature. It charges Levi before he can shoot again and mauls him. Levi’s limp body collapses to the ground over his shotgun, and now the beast sets his sights on Roger behind the door. Roger opens the door and as the monster gets closer, he fires his .410 from much closer range, hitting it in the shoulder area again but closer to the neck. It let’s out a blood-curdling growl and runs off past the back of the camper. He yells back to Connie and Diane to follow him outside and hide underneath the camper until help comes. He leapt from the door and rolled under, pulling himself upward above the driveshaft of the camper. The girls did not follow.

He hears Diane and Connie scream as the beast returns to the rear window, smashing it out and climbing inside. The camper rocks violently. His view is obscured, but he can hear everything as the beast rips Diane and Connie to shreds. There are two versions of the account here that are confusing. Roger says he believed a second beast came to the back of the camper and attacked Diane and Connie, but the investigator I researched who broke down this account believes the beast to be a solitary hunter, much like a werewolf is supposed to be, and that the same wounded beast came back to finish off what he started.

Roger is frozen with fear, still hiding beneath the RV, when the attack ends. He can no longer hear anything other than his own pounding heartbeat in his ears, but remains still and silent, straining to hear even the slightest sound. What he does not realize is that the beast has gone, but not without a prize. It has taken the body of young Connie with it out into the night. Something else Roger did not realize is that his point-blank shotgun blast found its mark. Weak, wounded and losing blood at a rapid pace, the beast dropped Connie’s lifeless body about fifty yards behind the camper. A thick trail of blood continued well past where she was left, leading to a large tree where the beast climbed up to rest and recover.

Roger, feeling like the danger had finally passed, eased himself back to the ground and looked out in every direction to see if the beast remained nearby. Out to the side where the cold firepit lay empty is Steven’s contorted body, the first to fall to the monster. At the front, Levi’s twisted body lay in a heap; his head and arms bent in an unnatural pose. He scrambled out and made a run for it. Along the main road, a farmer passing through in his pickup truck found Roger running as hard and fast as he could. He told Roger to get in the back while they drove to the farmer’s house to call the authorities.

The next part of his account resembles something out of an episode of the X-Files. Two agents from an unknown organization arrive at the farmer’s house to pick up Roger and transport him back to the campsite. When he arrives, the area is crawling with other agents of the same organization cataloguing the crime scene. An agent is assigned to escort Roger around the site named Walt. Roger described him as an authority figure based on the behavior of the other agents, and their vehicles as military jeeps, thought to be M-1151s, with large spotlights mounted on each of them. Walt escorted Roger around, asking him questions about the attack when suddenly and agent in the woods shouts for assistance. The jeeps train their spotlights up to see the corpse of a large beast laying in the high branches, bled out from Roger’s shotgun blast to its neck, and the body of young Connie lying not far away.

The Likely Truth:

This legend is divisive in many ways. When the Land Between the Lakes was created, it required imminent domain proceedings that displaced over 700 families that called the area their home. Those families are why there are so many small family cemeteries within the park. And those displaced residents, some of whom are still alive, are still fighting to get their land back. Some of those same residents find the legend of the beast offensive to their ancestral home, and disregard it as nonsense.

So where do they believe the legend originated? LBL has been the home of many moonshine stills since the beginning of settlements there. Some believe the old moonshiners made up the story to scare people out of exploring the woods and accidentally finding their still. Even so, LBL has been the home of one confirmed bizarre incident, the Vampire Hotel. A man claiming to be a 500-year-old vampire named Vesago invited several of his sharp-fanged followers to a structure in LBL. Declaring to be the leader of this vampire clan, he would have blood parties within the park where his friends “fed” off one another. Not long after, he was arrested for the murder of one of those friend’s parents.

Aside from that strange tale, I could not find any official reports of missing persons or murders within the park. Many believers in the LBL Beast claim a suspicious cover-up has buried the stories, and that these dog men and werewolves are known to certain government agencies. In fact, even finding these few stories was difficult, as it appears most of the tales surrounding the legend are only passed by word of mouth.

In a few of the versions I could find, the werewolf is described more as a Bigfoot-type creature over 11 feet tall but no less murderous than its lupine cousin. All of them describe the creature with glowing red eyes and extremely aggressive behavior. There is also a local warning that if you pass through the park at night and come upon a group of White-tailed Deer, they are cautioning you to turn back because the red-eyed demon is near.

I’ve driven through Land Between the Lakes and found it to be mesmerizingly beautiful. The untouched wilderness it offers is like a flame that I can’t help but be drawn to like a moth. When I drove through, it was daytime and sunny, but many stories of the fabled beast denote that day or night makes no difference, and that is enough to give me pause. I’ve spent many days and nights alone in the woods, but I am not certain I’d make a solo trip through the LBL. It appears that the creature is still active, still stalking and still hunting.

Thank you for listening to today’s Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast episode. I am your host, Lyle Russell, and remember, the dead may seem scary, but it’s the living you should be wary of. Until next time.

Listen to this episode here: The Beast of the Land Between the Lakes

TN G&L Episode 4: Haunted Battlefields – Shiloh and Chickamauga’s ‘Old Green Eyes’

Old Green Eyes at Chickamauga Battlefield

Welcome to the Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast. My name is Lyle Russell. I am your host, and I love a good ghost story. In this episode, we’ll discuss two haunted Civil War battlefields; the random and wandering spirits at Shiloh, and the terrifying phantom that haunts the Chickamauga Battlefield known as ‘Old Green Eyes.’

Between the years of 1861 to 1865, over 620,000 Americans lost their lives across the scarred U.S. landscape, and Tennessee was the site of many of those bloody contests. Two of the most significant Tennessee sites are Shiloh, near Savannah, Tennessee in Hardin County, and Chickamauga just across the border into Georgia south of Lookout Mountain. Both battlefields saw tremendous casualties; Shiloh with 23,700 and Chickamauga with 34,600, nearly 10% of the lives lost in the Civil War happened in these two battles. While many battles in every conflict are given the title of “the bloodiest battle,” Chickamauga comes in only second to Gettysburg, with Shiloh being a close third for the title in the American Civil War. Two quoted accounts of the carnage at Chickamauga come from a pair of Confederate soldiers that witnessed the aftermath.

In his book, “Reminiscences of the Civil War”, Confederate General John B. Gordon wrote of Chickamauga, “Words, however, cannot convey an adequate picture of such scenes; of the countless costly, daring assaults; of the disciplined or undisciplined but always dauntless courage; of the grim, deadly grapple in hand-to-hand collisions; of the almost unparalleled slaughter and agony.” Even the name, Chickamauga, is said to translate in English to “River of Death”.

A local farmer and Confederate Cavalry soldier named Larkin Poe, who’s family home was close to the site, wrote of what he saw in the aftermath of the costly two-day battle; “The moon was far down the west and cast a ghostly light over the woods and fields. The stillness of the night was unbroken except for the sound of my horse’s hooves and the hoot of some solitary owl. I had seen an old house near Jay’s Mill filled with wounded and suffering men, and I had hardly started till I began to see dead soldiers yet unburied, lying in and near the road. I rode on, turning my horse first to the right and then to the left to avoid the thick-strewn bodies. In places I saw where great trees had been splintered by shells and riddled by bullets… Just before reaching the Brotherton house, I came upon a scene of death and destruction noteworthy even on that terrible field. I saw a piece of artillery, evidently a Federal piece, which had been knocked from the wheels by a direct hit from our guns, and apparently most all of the horses and men belonging to the gun had perished there for their bodies lay in grotesque heaps around their piece.”

In the paranormal community, a common thought is that sites of great tragedy or loss of life tend to draw the most spiritual energy and can attract the attention of malevolent entities. This could be an explanation for why there seems to be so many reported hauntings of Civil War battlefields. And if the adage about malevolent entities is true, that could be the case with the phantom called ‘Old Green Eyes’ at Chickamauga.

One of the earliest accounts of a possible supernatural encounter at the battlefield comes from a book written by Susie Blaylock McDaniel called “The Official History of Catoosa County.” In this strange tale, a resident near the battle site was returning home after attending the 1876 American Centennial celebration held on Market Street in Chattanooga. While passing through the battle site, a man known locally as “Uncle Jim” Carlock and his companions encountered a large creature they described as being over 10 feet tall with a white, furry head. The area was remote, with no houses or light shining other than the moon, and he and another reveler called Mr. Shields were on horseback while the rest of the party rode in a wagon. Shields, it is said, charged the creature and reached it before it could escape, swinging wildly and hitting it in the head. The creature cried out, almost in the sound of a baby or a young child’s voice, and said, “Let me alone!” He later stated the creature they encountered was probably no creature at all but was a washer woman balancing a basket of clothes on top of her head. Even if that were true, why would a washer woman be out in the middle of the night on a remote battlefield with laundry? Even if the encounter was not supernatural, it was at least odd.

There are brief mentions in many accounts of soldiers claiming to see Old Green Eyes immediately after the battle around Snodgrass Hill, crawling among the dead Union soldiers left unburied on the field. Early accounts in Native American lore say this creature, or one similar to it, has inhabited the area for centuries.

When something can’t be explained to the rational mind, the mind rationalizes what it can and makes up the rest. With Old Green Eyes, the legend varies wildly as to what the creature actually is. Some accounts say it takes the appearance of a large cat like a tiger, a floating head, a small goblin-like creature, a large white-headed creature like the one Jim Carlock described, or a disheveled Civil War soldier that was left unburied and has returned to exact revenge for the slight. Some who believe in the metaphysical say it could be an elemental being; a guardian of the ancient mound-builders that inhabited the era in prehistoric times, and some who believe in the spiritual say it is a demon come to feed on the pain and suffering that remains over the battlefield’s many casualties. As the legend is retold over generations, the tale becomes taller, the details become darker, and the creature becomes more sinister.

Many paranormal investigators have ventured into the park at night trying to find or make contact with Old Green Eyes or other wandering spirits. The area of the park around Snodgrass Hill is touted as the most haunted area of the park. One group of female investigators in 2001 had a sleepless night, claiming to have heard horse hooves running, gun fire, smelling gunpowder and strong odors of alcohol. They also reported an overwhelming sense of melancholy and a feeling of being constantly surrounded throughout the night. In their photos from their investigation, they claim to have captured several images of floating orbs around the battlefield monuments and encountering several ghostly mists. Many locals and long-time residents around the park claim to have encountered Old Green Eyes, with the overwhelming majority describing him as a large man with long, black stringy hair and wearing a riding duster coat. Many of those same residents do not speak about him lightly, saying the malevolent spirit is real and something to be very fearful of. Some others add that he has fangs and claws, resembling more of a demon than a man.

In one such tale, a Chattanooga teenager in the late 50s/early 60s took a shortcut through the park on a foggy and drizzling night while on his way to pick up his date from her house in Georgia. The young man stated the fog and rain made it difficult to see, but in the distance, he saw incredibly bright green headlights coming toward him in the fog. He didn’t think anything of it at first, other than he had never seen a car with green headlights before until he realized they were not headlights at all, but the eyes of something running toward his car in the middle of the road. He swerved off the road and hit a tree trying to avoid the collision. As he lay there in the front seat, the eyes stared at him from a distance through the cracked windshield, unblinking and circling the wreck for several minutes while making a terrible moaning sound. Suddenly, the creature leapt onto the crumpled hood of his wrecked truck giving the injured driver a close up view of his stalker. He described it as hunched over with long, dark and stringy hair past its waist and a large jaw with sharp fangs jutting out. It watched him for a long while with those glowing green eyes until another approaching car scared it off. When the park rangers found him and his wrecked car, they dismissed his claim as a severe bump on the head and a hallucination. Of all the accounts, this one is difficult to determine if it is true or not.

A more modern encounter involves a Park Ranger named Edward Tinney, a 17-year veteran park historian at Chickamauga, who claims a close encounter with Old Green Eyes, or something similar to him. He claims that the ‘Green Eyes’ specter is a soldier who lost his head to a cannonball and his phantom head is searching the battlefield for his body, but that other ghosts are known to roam the grounds. During a Civil War reenactment event, Tinney and a fellow ranger took up a patrol of the park on foot near where the re-enactors were camped at around 4am. After crossing an intersection within the pitch-black park, a tall dark figure appeared at the end of the road and started toward them aggressively. He described it as being over six feet tall and wearing a long black riding cloak with black stringy hair. They stopped and watched as the man approached and came very close to where they stood. It looked up at him with not green, but dark glistening eyes and a feral-looking grin. As quickly as it approached them, it disappeared as car lights in the distance started up the road towards them. They could not explain what they both saw.

A story from a re-enactor at the park on a different date tells of a phantom patrol of soldiers encamped in the park during a living history days festival. He states on their first night, he and some of his reenactment group approached a neighboring campsite where several men were encamped around a fire and were having dinner. The re-enactor states they spoke with the men for several hours about the battle before heading back to their campsite to turn in. The following morning, they packed and went back to wish their neighboring campers luck during the event, but the camp and all trace of those men or their dinner fire was gone. He says the site was completely natural and undisturbed as if no one had touched it for years.

Another reported encounter happened on a foggy night near Wilder Tower within the park, where a restaurant worker was taking a short-cut to home after a long shift. She claims in an S-curve near the tower, she slowed down because of the thick fog and caught a glimpse of an apparition in the road with big, glowing green eyes that disappeared as she got closer. Having heard the tales of ‘Green Eyes’ growing up around the area, she states she never thought she’d actually see it, and now will not go near the park after sundown.

Chickamauga has two other special ghosts of note, the first being called “The Lady in White” that is reportedly seen around the Snodgrass Cabin area. It is said she wanders the field in her wedding gown looking for a lost love in the battle. Another tale tells of a group of teenagers working a hayride event near Wilder Tower where they encountered a phantom torch floating in the tree line. When they investigated, they claim to have clearly seen a skeletal figure in a Confederate uniform dismount a phantom horse with glowing green eyes and continually called out for an “Amy” before disappearing in the brush. Could those two spirits be seeking each other, their souls destined to wander the battlefield in an endless search for one another?

At Shiloh, many of the paranormal reports mirror those at Chickamauga; the sounds of phantom hoof beats, smells of spent gunpowder, echoes of gun shots and cannon fire, and drums sounding out battlefield commands. One of the strangest occurrences is the pond on the property, nicknamed The Bloody Pond, will sometimes appear red. Rangers have dismissed this as heat-driven algae blooms at the hotter parts of the year, but not everyone is ready to dismiss the paranormal explanation. After the battle, it is said the pond was completely red from the blood of both Union and Confederate soldiers using its water to clean their wounds.

Shiloh had a storied past even before the battle, as it is the site of several Native American burial mounds. Park visitors have reported sighting orbs moving in and out of the ground around the mounds, hearing tribal singing and drumming in the woods, and strange sudden drafts of hot and cold air mismatched to the current season. Some feel freezing gusts in the summer and heated blasts during the winter.

When the battlefield became a park, several unit monuments were built in areas significant to that unit’s role in the battle, much the same as monuments at other Civil War battlefields. Many reports of gunfire and phantom yelling are common around the monuments. This is a very common occurrence for those who walk the battle line by The Hornet’s Nest. Some commenters on the park’s website claim to have heard phantom moans and cries for help nearby when there was no one else around.

Near the Peach Orchard stands a cabin that is often photographed by visitors. Some claim to have captured images of a little boy with a drum by the cabin. One visitor who posted about the drummer boy spirit claims the spirit spoke to them on their phone’s voice recorder. When asking his name, they heard a response of “Jack.” They also asked his age and got the reply of “nine.” Park records indicate the youngest Shiloh drummer to be 11-year-old Johnny Clem who survived the battle, but there could have been an unknown younger one elsewhere that perished in the fight. There have been repeated sightings of a little boy in grey and white clothes seen descending the cabin ladder and running into the woods. It’s possible this apparition was a bystander that hid in the cabin and his spirit replays him running from the battle in fear.

The Peach Orchard is home to another Shiloh ghost that appears and disappears at random places on the road around the cabin. He’s always wandering slow, as if exhausted or possibly wounded, and his features and clothing are always non-descript and drab. As the people who see him get closer, he disappears only to reappear somewhere else along the road a short time later.

Some of the structures at Shiloh are also reportedly haunted. The rebuilt Shiloh Church, a replica of the original cabin-style one-room church that the battle site is named for has reports of visitors being touched or feeling like they are being watched, and some apparitions will show up in visitor’s photos on the inside of the church as a white mist or fog. In the ranger’s housing area, many reports are made of doors and windows shutting or opening on their own, and of strange drafts of hot or cold air in closed rooms.

While Shiloh doesn’t have a reported recurring entity like Chickamauga’s Old Green Eyes, it is no less spiritually active. There is little doubt that these enshrined sites have seen great pain and suffering, and perhaps some of those intense feelings of anguish remain to remind the living of what happened there in hopes the pain and suffering is never repeated.

So, what haunts the historic Chickamauga battlefield? Is Old Green Eyes real? One tale says no; that it’s a story made up by a park ranger in the 1960s to resurrect interest in visiting the park. While that could be true, it does not account for the many varied encounters people claim to have in the battlefield park.

What about Shiloh? Do you think those random spirits people claim to encounter are souls left behind to relive their anguish where they died so tragically?

I have personally visited both battlefields, Shiloh with a guided tour and Chickamauga on my own accord. While I did not encounter any spirit manifestations at either site, there is a heaviness to the landscape, much like the paranormal investigators claimed when they said they felt an overwhelming melancholy. Perhaps that sensation is simply the weight of history for those who care to learn it.

If there was any place that I felt the heaviest to me, it would have been the area known as The Hornet’s Nest at Shiloh. There are many descriptions written by soldiers who experienced the carnage in that narrow and sunken roadway. A young Confederate soldier named Henry Morton Stanley described his experience at Shiloh; “How the cannon bellowed, and their shells plunged and bounded, and flew with screeching hisses over us! Their sharp rending explosions and hurtling fragments made us shrink and cower, despite our utmost efforts to be cool and collected. I marveled, as I heard the unintermitting patter, snip, thud, and hum of the bullets, how anyone could live under this raining death. I could hear the balls beating a merciless tattoo on the outer surface of the log, pinging vivaciously as they flew off at a tangent from it, and thudding into something or other, at the rate of a hundred a second. One, here and there, found its way under the log, and buried itself in a comrade’s body. One man raised his chest, as if to yawn, and jostled me. I turned to him and saw that a bullet had gored his whole face and penetrated into his chest. Another ball struck a man a deadly rap on the head, and he turned on his back and showed his ghastly white face to the sky.”

Members of the Shiloh tour group I was with decided to walk the distance from the Confederate artillery line across the field to the low berm where Ulysses S. Grant described, “it would not have been possible to walk across the clearing in any direction and stepping on dead bodies without a foot touching the ground.” We then traversed the entire length of the Union line; walking through a young forest that has replaced the splintered and shattered trunks of the trees those men hid behind as Confederate lead rained down on them. A battle that saw so much carnage is bound to leave some spiritual energy lingering. Our walk was silent, and it was difficult not to feel surrounded by what happened there.

At Chickamauga, I was not able to spend much time outside of the visitor’s center but taking in everything that happened there gives even that modernized building a heavy feeling, as if the eyes of those who fell watch your every move when you enter their hallowed ground. After leaving the battlefield and a short drive north back into Tennessee, I spent a considerable amount of time walking among the tombstones of Chattanooga National Cemetery, where many of the fallen from Chickamauga, Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge are interred. Of the 12,800 Confederates buried there, almost 4,200 are unknown and many more Union soldiers interred in mass graves, their names lost to history. Perhaps one of them is the earthly remains of Old Green Eyes.

Thank you for listening to today’s Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast episode. I am your host, Lyle Russell, and remember, the dead may seem scary, but it’s the living you should be wary of. Until next time.

TN G&L Episode 3: The White Bluff Screamer and Werewolf Springs

White Bluff, Tennessee

Welcome to the Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast. My name is Lyle Russell. I am your host, and I love a good ghost story. In this episode, we’ll discuss a strange tale out of Dickson County, Tennessee about a murderous creature known as the White Bluff Screamer.

Near an isolated area known as Trace Creek, not far from where modern-day Highway 47 crosses southwest of Montgomery Bell State Park, there lived a young family whose names are lost to history trying to make their new life in 1920s rural Tennessee. The family had seven children, the oldest being around fourteen and the youngest was six. There was nothing remarkable about them, as the area saw many young families spread to the rural areas of Tennessee at the end of World War I to restart their lives. The patriarch of this family could well have been one of those returning veterans. They built a typical cabin-style home in the bottomlands southeast of White Bluff and planted their crops. All was well with their world—until the screaming started.

The first night was unsettling for the quiet rural farm. The screeching wail echoed throughout their valley. The children and their mother waited silently in their cabin as their father took his lantern around the house to investigate, but nothing was found. He dismissed the noise as some sort of injured animal. However, the following nights, the screaming grew longer, louder, and so frequent that after a week of the disturbance, sleep was impossible for any of them, and the children were terrified of the coming night. When the sun went down, the screams would start anew. Their father, desperate to rid his family of this horrible screaming, sat out on their porch one evening, rifle in hand, and watched as the sun sank over the surrounding hills. When the last light of day extinguished itself, he told his wife to lock the doors and windows, and to only open it for him when he returned. The familiar eerie wailing began almost immediately after dark. He steeled himself, said goodbye to his family, then set out into the dark woods. Tonight, he would find the source of the screams that tormented his family and kill it.

The ceaseless scream pierced his ears as he bounded through the thick brush. The man was determined, though icy chills ran through his body every time the scream started. He was an expert woodsman but struggled to keep his bearings and became lost chasing the screams through the fog. Every time he thought he was getting nearer; the unnerving wail would suddenly move farther away and in different directions. At times he felt he was walking in circles, or, that the screaming was actually encircling him. Was there more than one beast out there taunting him? The horrible sound echoed off the large trees and made tracking the source nearly impossible. He extinguished his light and knelt down trying to pinpoint the direction of the screams.

“If I can’t find it, I will let it find me,” he said to himself. He crouched and waited.

Suddenly, the horrible wail became mixed with the blood-curdling screams of a woman… and of children. Whatever this thing was, it had found his family. He raced through fog and brush, his heart pounding with every footfall. He cried out for them, but only the terrified screams of his family replied. After what seemed an eternity, he could make out the dim lantern light hanging on his front porch through the fog. He was almost there. Then, the screams abruptly stopped.

The man burst through the cabin door to find a gruesome scene. The eviscerated bodies of his wife and children were strewn about the cabin; their lifeless forms torn to shreds. As he collapsed in horror and disbelief, the eerie wailing started again.

Many versions of the tale do not end there. Some say that after finding his family slain, the man set out again in a murderous rage to hunt down their assailant, only for him to find a ghostly female figure enshrouded in a white mist. The spirit floated through the trees, leaving scorched ground beneath her in a blue, ethereal fire. Another variation says he encountered a great beast with white fur, easily twice the size of a man, with savage claws and teeth. Both of those versions have led paranormal enthusiasts to believe the White Bluff Screamer to be one of two mythical creatures: a Banshee or a cryptid. While no records of a terrible murder like this could be found, locals of White Bluff, Tennessee who keep up with the town’s history, say that this incident happened. Reports say the remains of the man’s cabin are still there, and that the White Bluff Screamer still haunts the area around it.

So, what could the ‘Screamer’ be? A Banshee, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, is a female supernatural being in Celtic folklore who’s nightly wailing foretells the death of a family member of the person who hears it. Banshees are usually associated with Irish legend, but a version of the banshee exists in Welsh and Scottish lore as well. There are also many stories originating in the United States about banshees, particularly in North Carolina and South Dakota.

For those who believe the Screamer is a cryptid of some sort, Great Smoky Mountains National Park in east Tennessee has a few reported sightings of a Bigfoot-type creature, but that is a fair distance from White Bluff. However, Tennessee is covered in large and heavily forested areas. It is possible there is more than one or that perhaps the creature migrates to different parts of the state. Most of the reported cryptid encounters in Tennessee have a somewhat violent twist to them. If this was indeed a cryptid, the massacre of the family fits the profile.

A different possibility involves another long-standing fable in Dickson County: The Legend of Werewolf Springs. This 1860s tale says a passing circus train either stopped unexpectedly or derailed just outside of Burns Station, Tennessee, and many of the circus animals escaped into the surrounding countryside. Any of the animals that could not be recaptured were left behind. Among the elusive escapees were two men known as the “Wolf Men of Borneo”; a side show act that touted these men as half man and half beast, being able to shapeshift at will. The wolf men were not recaptured and were abandoned to their fate in the Tennessee hills.

Two years after the train incident, a local landowner and one of his foremen were passing through an area called Hall Springs, now called Werewolf Springs unofficially, near Burns Station on their way to a homestead in nearby Beckley. It was almost dark and the road was muddy, so their pace was slow. The foreman kept pestering his boss that he felt like something was stalking them. The man dismissed the notion as cowardice and forced the wagon to push on through the night. Suddenly, a wild howl pierced the twilight and a creature emerged on the road behind them running on all fours. The Foreman whipped the mules to go faster but the creature was gaining on them. In a panic, they abandoned their horses and wagon for the woods, fleeing for their lives in different directions. The landowner crashed through the brush as fast as he could go until he heard another wailing howl and the terrified screams of his foreman back the way he had come. He continued to run in fear. The creature never came for him, so he lived to tell the tale.

When he made it back to Burns, he immediately went to the sheriff, who formed a posse to find the foreman and hunt down this creature. They took a goat for bait and headed to an area near the springs where other reports of a strange animal had been described. They hitched the goat to a tree, split into groups of two, and surrounded the clearing with rifles at the ready. The moon was high, and all was quiet. The nervous men kept a sharp eye out for their prey but saw nothing. Around midnight, just as the sheriff was planning to call off the hunt, an ear-shattering scream split the night and a large, hairy creature entered the clearing moving quickly towards the goat. The muzzle flash of hunting rifles cracked out their report as the men yelled to charge the beast. When they lit their lanterns to see if they’d hit it, the creature was gone, along with the goat and two members of the posse that were never seen again.

It is said that next the sheriff contacted a famed big game hunter to slay this beast and brought the man to a remote cabin near the spring to begin his hunt. After two nights of stalking the springs, the hunter found no sign of the beast and returned to the cabin to rest before his third and final night of hunting. When he woke that evening to prepare, a loud wailing howl echoed across the springs. He saw the beast through the window at the edge of the woods and fired at it from inside the cabin. His shots either missed or hit and angered the beast and it charged the cabin.

The door hinges barely held as the beast slammed against the oak planks. The hunter fired shots through the door but couldn’t tell if he hit it or not. He pushed heavy furniture against the door and window, waiting to see where the creature would try next. At one time, a weak area of the back wall was giving way, but after firing his pistol into the wall, the beast abandoned the idea of coming through it. For hours, the creature tested every part of the cabin for weak points and then seemed to leave when it could not get in. The hunter, having experience with stalking dangerous prey, was not so easily fooled. His ammo was low, so he climbed into the rafters for higher ground, reloaded every weapon he had, and waited. His caution paid off, as a few moments later, the beast returned with a renewed vigor, slamming repeatedly into the door until it finally gave way. It charged into the cabin and the hunter opened fire, hitting the beast multiple times. The beast clawed and scratched to try and get to him, but the hunter climbed too high. The story says the sun peaked over the horizon shortly after, and the creature fled the cabin and into the woods as daylight broke.

Further to the north and east of Werewolf Springs, a cave was discovered in an area called Creech Hollow where the beast supposedly lived. Another story of a young girl who disappeared while fetching water from the spring is told, and a search party set out to find her. The searchers found both animal and human bones within the cave, but the girl was never found. The lost cave is now at the bottom of Creech Hollow Lake, a man-made reservoir formed when the park opened. Mule and horse bones have also been found around the Werewolf Springs area.

A State Park Ranger who was familiar with the legend found the remains of a cabin site in between Werewolf Springs and nearby Hall family cemetery, all of which is now part of Montgomery Bell State Park. While the story of the hunter and the cabin comes to mind, it was more likely the cabin belonging to the Halls or one of the many other families that made their home within the area before being declared a park.

Even with a preponderous amount of evidence that the White Bluff Screamer and the beast of Werewolf Springs are myths, many long-time residents of Dickson County around Burns and White Bluff hold on to their claims of having seen and heard the Screamer. They are also open to the notion that the screamer and the beast could be one and the same, roaming the dense woodlands around the park. I have personally camped at Montgomery Bell State Park, both in their beautiful geothermal cabins and a short overnight hike to one of the primitive campsites along the Montgomery Bell Trail. I didn’t make it as far as Werewolf Springs, but I wandered a fair distance into that beautiful wilderness and luckily did not encounter anything resembling the famed beast.

There is also no readily available record of a rail accident involving a circus train. There are rail lines in that area that have followed the same tracks since the mid-1800s, but rail traffic in that time would likely have been troop and munition haulers during the Civil War and not civilian circus trains. That said, there are records of multiple train accidents after the war in that area, though none specifically mention a circus. Many also say that the landowner in the wagon that was stalked by the beast was none other than iron-mining tycoon Montgomery Bell, himself. Yet Bell died in 1855 which is prior to the supposed encounter.

There are also living members of the Hall family who have given accounts of their childhood growing up around the area of Werewolf Springs, and none of those reports include a creature tormenting their family. However, there are still reports of strange happenings in the woods around White Bluff. In one such account, a hunter at his cabin near the park encountered a cryptid-like creature after cleaning and field dressing his deer. He placed the innards in a washtub for later disposal and hung the deer up for skinning. While taking a break on the porch, the woods became strangely quiet when all the sudden, his hunting dogs bayed and scurried into the cabin in fear; tails tucked as they ran. When he stepped off the porch to investigate, around the corner stepped a monstrous white-haired creature. It went after his hunting dogs first, then the hunter himself. He ran for the cabin and locked himself in, barricading the door as his dogs continued barking and howling at the creature outside. The creature wailed and paced on the porch for a long while before finally giving up, stealing his deer and the wash tub of deer parts. He later found the tub in the nearby woods licked completely clean.

Did he encounter the famed White Bluff Screamer? Or was it the beast that gives Werewolf Springs its infamous name? Only one thing is for certain: there is something wailing in the woods around White Bluff, Tennessee, and what it is, no one knows.

Thank you for listening to today’s Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast episode. I am your host, Lyle Russell, and remember, the dead may seem scary, but it’s the living you should be wary of. Until next time.

To listen to this episode, click here: The White Bluff Screamer and Werewolf Springs

TN G&L Episode 2: The Headless Signalman and the Chapel Hill Ghost Light

Chapel Hill, Tennessee

Welcome to the Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast. My name is Lyle Russell. I am your host, and I love a good ghost story. On today’s show, we’re talking about one of Tennessee’s most haunted tales, the Headless Signalman and the Chapel Hill Ghost Light.

On a dark and rainy night, a freight train heading south out of Nashville on the L&N rail line was bearing down on Chapel Hill, Tennessee. Several days of heavy rain had washed out part of the fill beneath a stretch of track before the tressel crossing the Duck River, creating a potentially dangerous hazard for trains passing over it. A lone signalman was dispatched up the track with a lantern to warn the locomotive to stop so repairs could be made before the train could safely cross. Donning his oil-treated raincoat and a rusty lantern from the station platform, the signalman began the muddy walk north up the tracks.

Somewhere near the modern-day crossing of the tracks over Logue Street, the signalman felt the familiar rumble of steam-driven steel wheels grinding on the track and the faint headlight in the distance. He watched as the train approached, knowing they probably couldn’t see him through the torrential downpour until they were much closer. He raised his lamp as high as he could, waving the dim light back and forth to catch the engineer’s attention, but the train was not slowing down. He waved it faster, even jumping to give the light an erratic movement, but there was no stopping it. He waited until the last possible minute to move off the tracks, which turned out to be a fatal mistake. The rains made the tracks slick and the signalman slipped, striking his head on one of the rails. At that moment, the engineer noticed the flickering lantern laying in the middle of the track. He sounded the whistle as he pulled the brake, but it was too late. The giant iron engine skidded past the lantern, wheels screeching as steel slid across steel and sparking from the friction. The train finally stopped several hundred yards later, far past where the signalman fell.

The engineer took a lantern of his own and ran back through the night to find the signalman, but all he found was what was left of him. The steel wheels had severed the signalman’s head clean off at the neck, leaving his headless corpse laying in the mud next to the track. Upon seeing the gruesome scene, the engineer dropped his lantern and ran back to the engine shouting, “We hit him! We hit him! What a terrible accident. We hit him!” The Brakeman and Conductor could not console the poor distraught engineer. They put him back in the cab and went back to collect the poor signalman’s headless body. They searched through the pouring rain for hours, but the body was gone. All that remained was a broken flickering lantern in the middle of the track.

Many years later, sightings were reported of a strange light on the tracks to the west of Chapel Hill, and not just by one person. Hundreds of people claim to have witnessed this strange light and none could explain it. Three significant encounters with the light are often repeated. One such story written by Kathryn Tucker Wyndham in her book, Thirteen Tennessee Ghost and Jeffrey, states that in the 1950s, two boys and their uncle were out walking the track one evening looking for the light. One of the boys, Jackie, grew bored and started tossing rocks into the nearby woods. While the other boy, PeeWee, was chiding him for making a racket, he stopped in mid-sentence and stared down the track. There, in the distance was a glowing light the appeared to be moving straight toward them. They all scurried off the track and watched as the strange orb started swooping and swaying erratically around the open area. The light stopped moving, then suddenly, it swooped in at high speed toward them, hitting one of the boys in the chest. The glow disappeared and all was black. The uncle stated that as the orb hit his nephew Jackie, a loud thud was felt through the railroad tie beneath his feet. The boy that the orb hit said afterward that it felt like a powerful force paralyzed him, holding him still. He tried to scream but couldn’t. PeeWee said he also felt a thud through the ground as the orb suddenly reappeared behind Jackie after passing through him, then speeding off down the track and out of sight.

The second tale involves four thrill-seeking boys in the 1970s that decided to investigate the light for themselves. They drove up on the tracks around midnight where the train crosses Depot Street by the old train station. It was a clear and moonless Fall night with a slight fog hovering low to the ground. They pulled up on the crossing grade and put the car in park. The boys on the driver’s side watched down the left side of the tracks while the boys on the passenger side watched the right. They left the car running in case a train came, or if the sheriff pulled up. They didn’t want to get in trouble for parking on the tracks. After a few minutes of watching and poking fun at each other for believing some silly story about ghost lights, a light suddenly appeared in the distance on the passenger side and started moving toward them.

The panicked boys were shouting at the driver to move the car and to get out of there, screaming that it was coming right for them. He slammed the car into gear and floored the pedal, but the car wouldn’t move. They shouted more and more to go, to get the car moving right now, but still, the engine revved and the car would not move. The light moved closer and closer, picking up speed as it approached. They all screamed and braced for impact as the orb collided with their car. Again, a loud thud was reported but the light diminished to a faint glow. In their fright, the boys concluded it must be on top of the car or under it, they didn’t know which. Nothing happened for what seemed like an eternity, then suddenly the glow intensified as the orb continued past them down the track and sped off into the night.

After the light disappeared, the car worked again, and the driver sped off into town to a gas station that was closed for the night. They all got out and sighed with relief after the encounter, trying to make sense of what they had just seen. As the driver rounded the back of the car, he noticed rows of deep scratches in the paint that were not there before.

There is another story of a man who was hit by a train there in Chapel Hill June 8th, 1942, named Skip Adjent. The story of his demise is verifiable, and most folks credit his death as the beginning of the ghost lights. A song was written about him by John Rickman called “Chapel Hill Ghost Light” and recorded in 1977 by Us Two and Him. His lyrics go like this:

Many years ago, along the railroad track one night,

A man was walking home and held a lantern for his light.

He never heard the whistle scream or the mighty engine pound,

He never even knew it when the freight train ran him down.

The engineer ran back in time to see the poor man die,

But as he neared the tragic spot a light rose in the sky.

The lamp the man carried was never found that night,

Now the old folks say above the track, his lantern’s shining bright.

And still, his lantern hangs over the railroad watching every freight train go by.

There’s a ghost light over the railroad shining in the Chapel Hill sky.

The last story about the light takes a darker turn, and this comes from Kathryn Tucker Windham’s book. In December of 1940, a single mother of two teenage boys known as Mrs. Ketchum went missing from her rural home just outside Chapel Hill. Being around Christmas time, the neighbors didn’t worry much about her absence, but thought it strange that the boys didn’t go with her, and even they didn’t know where she went. After two weeks, the boys and the neighbors decided to notify police of the missing woman and an investigation was started. It wasn’t long before suspicions of foul play concerning another reclusive neighbor they linked to her, but they could not confirm what happened to her without a body. Authorities questioned the man relentlessly, and one day, when returning to ask him for additional information, they found him dead of suicide. The townsfolk immediately condemned him as her abductor and that a guilty conscious compelled him to take his own life. Police assumed she must be dead after so much time, so the boys were adopted out to other family in another state and the case remained an unsolved mystery.

Some of the townsfolk were not satisfied that Mrs. Ketchum’s body was never found, so almost a year later, in January 1941, they contacted a well-known clairvoyant named Simon Warner, ironically known as “The Murder Doctor”, who lived in Shelbyville. Mr. Warner had an uncanny knack for finding missing people and things through his gift and agreed to help. Through his methods, it is said he told them she was certainly dead and described a location in exacting detail where Mrs. Ketchum’s body could be found, including the including the plant species of brush she was hidden under. The description was so vivid that some of the townsfolk knew exactly where he was talking about, and a search party was launched. Mrs. Ketchum was found in the exact place Simon Warner said, with every detail correct, even the plant species. Her frozen body was taken to the morgue, where, strangely, long-time local undertaker Thomas Lawrence did not perform an autopsy or list a cause of death on her death certificate before she was buried.

It is said the occurrences of the light did not start until after Mrs. Ketchum was found, and that the light was her spirit erratically wandering the woods near where she died searching for her sons. When a young man is nearby, her light races toward them to see if it is one of her boys and disappears when the spirit of her neighbor and abductor who committed suicide comes for her.

This haunting is difficult to investigate because sightings occur at irregular intervals. Many have claimed to see the strange light. Orbs and ghost lights are seen in many places, particularly in remote sections of the Appalachian Mountains. One of the most famous occurrences of this is the Brown Mountain Lights in North Carolina, which are described identically like the Chapel Hill light. In many cases, the lights are what is called foxfire or swamp gas, a naturally occurring phenomenon made by sudden releases of methane pockets from decomposing organic material. Swamps are hyper-active with decomposition activity, thus the name. These lighter-than-air pockets of flammable gas will sometimes flare up from spontaneous combustion due to the content of phosphine, which reacts violently when exposed to oxygen. This natural occurrence gives the appearance of a floating ball of fire or light. Some skeptics also dismiss this case as light reflection from the train rails, which are dull to the eye from the sides, but shiny and reflective on the top where the train wheels roll over them.

However, if the reports of direct interaction with the orb are true, like Jackie and the four boys stuck in their car, swamp gas and light reflection would not cause a ground-shaking thud nor explain the erratic movement. Many paranormal investigators, both professional and amateur, have captured orbs in photos from haunted places and claim they are spirits on film, but none have ever been proven beyond a doubt to be supernatural. There is also no explanation for the scratches on the back of the car, though such circumstantial evidence is also hardly proof of the light being supernatural. Anything could have caused those marks.

Believers in the legend, and of the paranormal in general, have reported these sightings as possible UFO’s, and there are several occurrences world-wide of “phantom train” legends that roar up and down abandoned tracks or places where significant train accidents have occurred.

With basic research, I found that there was a Ketchum family around the Chapel Hill area on the 1920, 30 and 40 census, but I could not find any mention of an abduction or murder. The story of Skip Adjent is verifiable, however, so much has been written about him because of the lights that it is difficult to discern which is the real story and which is sensationalized. The experiences of the four teenage boys and Jackie being accosted by the light are word-of-mouth. I could not find any official reports of the incidents, but that does not mean they don’t exist.

In the end, there is no definitive proof of the light’s origin, but with the many reported sightings since the 1950s, there is definitely something strange on the tracks around Chapel Hill, and it is not just the trains.

Thank you for listening to today’s Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast episode. I am your host, Lyle Russell, and remember, the dead may seem scary, but it’s the living you should be wary of. Until next time.

Listen to this episode here: The Chapel Hill Ghost Light

TN G&L Episode 1: The Legend of Sadie Baker

Sadie’s Grave, Coffee County, Tennessee

Show Script

Welcome to the inaugural episode of the Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast. My name is Lyle Russell, and I love a good ghost story. On today’s show, I’ll share with you the Legend of Sadie Baker.

In the 6th Civil District near modern day Manchester, Tennessee lived the Sheltons, a large and prominent well-to-do family who was blessed with multiple healthy children. Their daughters were well-known in the area for their beauty and the sons were handsome and strong. All had many prospects for advantageous marriages until one day, when a beautiful stranger came to town. This legend focuses on the youngest Shelton daughter, a kind-hearted soul named Olivia.

All the Shelton daughters were sought after by many handsome and prosperous suitors, but none were so prized as Olivia. She was the most beautiful maiden in town, with flawless olive skin, curly raven-colored locks, and crystal blue eyes. Young men far and wide vied for her affection and she was the toast of the local gentry. Her parents knew and used that to their social advantage, especially her mother.

One afternoon after a day in town, Olivia encountered a sad-looking beggar girl on the dusty streets of the Manchester shopping district. Olivia had never seen the girl in town before and asked other passers-by about her, yet no one could say who she was or where she came from. The poor thing was a pitiful sight, draped in threadbare rags under a dirty cloak and smelled repugnant, causing the townsfolk to ignore her, or at least avoid walking near her, but not the kind and curious Olivia. She approached, kneeled in front of the sad-looking stranger and asked her name. The girl would not reply or even look up at her. She only extended a dirt caked hand, gesturing for a coin or anything else of value Olivia might be willing to part with. Olivia asked again for her name or if she needed help, but the beggar remained silent, only staring down and holding her hand out. Olivia asked a final time, but as much as she tried, she received no response. Through her boundless sympathy and pity for the downtrodden, and now a strange curiosity about her identity, Olivia pulled her up by the hand. “That settles it then, “she said. “You’re coming home with me, and my family and I are going to help you.” And off they went toward the Shelton house at the edge of town.

When Olivia arrived home with the young girl in tow, her sisters were giddy with the thought of a makeover project, but her mother was not so enthusiastic about Olivia’s new friend. Nevertheless, after all the girls begged to let her stay, Mrs. Shelton finally relented. Olivia and her sisters went to work straight away on cleaning her up. As the grime was slowly wiped away, they were all taken aback by the incredible beauty underneath it all. The girl had flowing golden-white locks, flawless pale skin and bright green eyes. Her slight frame fit into Olivia’s best dresses too easily. It is said that the sisters became insanely jealous of this new diamond in the rough, but none so much as Olivia’s mother. Mrs. Shelton saw this silent street rat’s beauty as a threat to her own daughter’s place as the most beautiful girl in Manchester, and that simply would not do.

Her fears were proven true later that day, as Mr. Shelton and his sons arrived home from a hard day’s work. At dinner, they barely spoke or ate as the gob smacked Shelton boys were enthralled by the stunning beauty of this young girl. She had probably not eaten in some time, and voraciously yet gracefully ate her fill without ever speaking a word.

In the following days, Olivia’s brothers are said to have fought with each other for the beautiful stranger’s attention, though she paid them nor anyone else any mind. The quiet girl just kept to herself and never spoke. Her lack of enthusiasm toward the boys didn’t stop them from bragging around town about the stunning new resident at the Shelton’s house. As word spread through the small town of her presence, the usual gentlemen callers that normally came to see Olivia and her sisters lost interest in them. Instead, they all clamored for a glimpse of the beautiful stranger behind their door.

Olivia was not jealous of the girl like her sisters were. In fact, she made every effort to be the girl’s friend, even though she never got any response for her efforts. However, all the unnatural devotion from the Shelton boys and the other male townsfolk was not lost on the keen eyes of Olivia’s mother. This mysterious girl became the talk of the town and left Mrs. Shelton facing a southern societal conundrum. She could not kick the girl out on the street for fear of appearing to be a less-than-gracious hostess, and surely someone else in town would scoop up the young maiden for their own benefit, creating even more of a suitor rivalry for the Shelton girls. Her only option was to forcefully keep the girl as a captive house guest. Mrs. Shelton would lock her away from the town for as long as it took until marriage proposals for Olivia and her sisters could be negotiated. She forbade all the Shelton men from speaking to anyone about her presence anymore. She then sat the girl in their parlor and explained that she was not safe outside, and that great harm would befall her if she left the house.

The girl did not protest her imprisonment. She just stared at the floor and never uttered a word.

Olivia’s world came crashing down one Spring afternoon when her most eligible gentleman caller, a handsome young man from another prominent family and Olivia’s sweetheart, called on their blonde house guest for a stroll about town instead of her. The visit sent Mrs. Shelton into a rage, and a crying and heartbroken Olivia pleaded with her mother to throw the girl back out into the street or at least send her away to some other town. She could not be consoled about the loss of her sweetheart, locking herself in her room and crying through the night. That’s when her mother decided to act.

She called on the local minister and insisted the only explanation for all this strange behavior was that this enigmatic girl must be a witch. How could a common beggar girl who would not speak a word and hardly left the house have captured the attention of every man in town? The minister needed little convincing, since he, too, had witnessed his congregation’s strange infatuation with her grow since her arrival. He sent word to convene the town council for a trial. Mrs. Shelton demanded the council pass judgement without the girl’s presence, as the council were all men and they, too, could be bewitched by her devilry. The minister agreed, and the council convened for judgement without allowing the girl any representation or a chance to defend herself. The trial commenced, and the fiery speech of the minister and scandalous accusations by Mrs. Shelton whipped the town into a moral frenzy. That was all they needed. Within moments, a verdict was passed.

They declared her a witch without any further evidence and immediately debated how to proceed with ridding the town from her spell. After debating the options of traditional punishments for witchcraft, such as hanging, drowning, or burning at the stake, a vote was taken that she would be buried alive and covered with large rocks so she could not escape the grave. A mob was dispatched to the Shelton house to retrieve her, and the rest were sent to the cemetery to find rocks and hastily dig a deep grave.

The silent girl was drug from her bed in the middle of the night by her golden hair. She was stripped, bound to a pole, and roughly dragged through the dirt streets where Olivia originally found her. The townsfolk spit on her and cursed her as she was shoved mercilessly toward the fresh hole in the Earth where they would bury her, yet through the horrible shame and torment, she did not resist and still said nothing.

Olivia suddenly had a change of heart, feeling responsible for this cruelty after seeing the rage of her neighbors carried out on this poor girl whose only crime was being prettier than her. She ran into the fray to try and stop the procession, placing herself between kicks and punches and pleading with them to stop, but she was unsuccessful. When the mob arrived at the cemetery, they stood the girl up at the edge of the hole where she looked around at the angry torch-lit faces of the men who were once smitten with her and the women who cursed and despised her. She suddenly locked eyes with a distraught Olivia; her bleeding and swollen face flew into a rage as she shouted the only words anyone ever heard her speak.

“I am Sadie Baker!”

They pushed her in and took turns throwing down the rocks, burying the helpless young girl under a small mountain of stone.

Several months passed, and life returned to the normal that the Sheltons were accustomed to. All of the sons and daughters were now married off to start families of their own.Last to marry was young Olivia, who ended up marrying the sweetheart she so adored. At first, there was bliss in their house. Olivia’s husband worked hard and provided a wonderful living, and they talked regularly of grand plans and having children. All seemed right for a while until one night, while preparing for bed, Olivia’s husband found her sitting and absently staring at her reflection in the dressing mirror. Her raven locks were clutched tightly in her clenched fists. When he asked her if she was alright, she screamed and accused him of wanting a family with Sadie instead of her. She then cried herself to sleep, and every night thereafter.

The strange paranoia continued for several days as she cursed her long dark hair and olive skin, hating how she looked. She told him she wished she looked like Sadie so he would love her again. He assured her he loved her now, but her fury would not let her hear him. Olivia would not eat or sleep. She sat and stared blankly into the mirror and pulled at her hair. He begged the town doctor for help, but no balm or tincture would calm Olivia’s mind. He then went to the minister, who declared that Sadie’s final words at the grave had bewitched Olivia, and that it must be Sadie’s spirit trying to take over her body. He desperately wanted to ease his wife’s pain, and out of desperation, he allowed the minister to treat her. A violent exorcism was performed, among other religious rituals to expel the tormented spirit, but nothing worked. Olivia’s condition worsened by the day.

One evening, Olivia’s husband arrived home to find her in front of the mirror again with a wide-eyed and wild stare. Her head was a mess of chopped and jagged tufts, and small bleeding cuts from the garden shears she used to cut off all her hair. Her long, raven-colored locks laid in clumps on the floor. All Olivia would say is that the ugly dark hair did not belong with her new beautiful blonde hair. She repeatedly asked him if he liked it. When he tried to calm her, she attacked him again, throwing him to the floor and pouncing on top of him with a feral snarl. She screamed into his face, “I AM SADIE BAKER!” then sprinted out of the house and into the darkened woods, never to be seen again.

Around the cemetery where Sadie was buried, reports persisted for many years after of a woman’s maniacal laughter and blood-curdling screams coming from the surrounding woods. They believed it to either be Olivia suffering the guilt of causing Sadie to be buried alive, or it was the spirit of Sadie Baker herself, returned to find her body under the stones. It was said until Sadie found her body, she would curse those who came to her grave and not leave a coin, just as Olivia should have done when they first met in the dusty streets.

I do not usually make a habit of debunking myths, however, in my research, I cannot corroborate the story in any capacity and must relegate it to local word-of-mouth folklore. The last official witch trial in the United States was held in 1918 just over 100 years ago, and, ironically, happened in Salem, Massachusetts. There is a possibility that an incident like this could have occurred in Tennessee, as many people were falsely persecuted as witches in many places throughout world history.

As for this legend, there is little known about the life of the real Sadie Baker, but this grave and the story that is attached to it that has stirred so many minds to think the grave belongs to a beautiful witch that was buried alive, when it definitely does not. The evidence I have found about the real Sarah ‘Wileman’ Baker in that grave is that she was born in Georgia around 1804 and was the widow of a Samuel Baker who was killed in 1838 during the Seminole War in Florida. By the 1860 Census, Sarah, at the age of 57, lived in the 6th Civil District of Coffee County near Manchester, along with eight various other Bakers as young as 1 years old, likely a grandchild. On that same census, there are several records of the Shelton family and their children living in the same district, but I could not find any named Olivia. Though an exact date isn’t certain, it seems she died in or around 1865 right after the end of the American Civil War. Based on property records, she was the only Sarah Baker in Coffee County at that time. Since Sadie is a derivative nickname of Sarah, this is most likely the Sarah Baker that passed in 1865 at 61-ish years old, and not a young girl thought to be a witch and buried alive.

The Sadie Baker story is well known in the paranormal world, and no new ground was broken by my investigation. However, even though it appears this legend is easily debunked, an air of mystery still surrounds the grave site. Many modern-day visitors have reported unsettling feelings of dread and fear even after just a brief time at the cemetery, and of being watched, particularly around Sadie’s grave.

Believers who make the pilgrimage to Sadie’s final resting place still leave a coin atop her stone, homage to her first encounter with Olivia begging for spare change and a hope the coin will placate Sadie’s restless spirit. I decided to see for myself what the fuss was about and visited her grave at the Concord Cemetery in Coffee County, Tennessee on April 7th, 2022.

It was a beautiful Thursday afternoon, just over 50 degrees; sunny and breezy. I wandered around the gravestones alone for about 30 minutes to get a feel of the place, trying to recreate the experiences others have reported. I’m happy to report, I did not feel any of those things. I’ve spent a lot of time in cemeteries hunting for my ancestor’s graves and have always found peace while walking among the dead. Concord Cemetery was no different. Though only 200 yards from a busy highway, it was remarkably quiet and peaceful. The only noticeable sound was the sway of the tall cedars on the property from the gentle northerly breeze.

After a time, I visited with Sadie at her stone. I never once felt uneasy or the sudden urge to glance over my shoulder. She is interred right at the front of the cemetery near the small redbrick church building that stands sentinel over the hillside plots. Her carved marble block stands low, just about ankle high; her infamous nickname emblazoned in bold black letters. Not Sarah, but Sadie. There are no dates of birth or death, no words of inspiration. Just a cold piece of marble marking the final resting place of a local legend, and her name is all that remains.

Other visitors had left pennies on top of her stone, as well as a small horseshoe, unlit candles, small crystal stones, some artificial flowers and a small green bottle marked “unfiltered poison”. While I’m not sure of the significance of the other items, I understand the coins and their attachment to the legend. Before I departed, I left a coin of my own on top of her stone. Though I’m not a believer in the legend, I still felt it appropriate to pay my own respects to the woman’s name that adorns the title of my first podcast, and just in case the story is true, I’d rather be safe than sorry!

Thank you for listening to the Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast inaugural episode. I am your host, Lyle Russell, and remember, the dead may seem scary, but it’s the living you should be wary of. Until next time.

Listen to this episode here: The Legend of Sadie Baker