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