Tennessee

The Body Farm: A Life After Death

While I have made reference to the lore of one Body Farm around Percy Priest Lake before, I’d like to also tell you about a very real Body Farm in Knoxville that is purposefully FULL of gore. The University of Tennessee’s forensics department and CSI teams from around the world get first-hand experience while studying decomposition of bodies just by going to the 2.5 acre peaceful “farm” down the Alcoa Highway. There they can take their pick of over 100 rotting bodies placed in crime scene scenarios that have been exposed to the elements for varying amounts of time. Graphic (obvious) warning: these pictures are not for the weak.

There is nothing nefarious about how the bodies came to the research facility. Wikipedia cites that the facility receives over 100 bodies each year, of which 60% are donated by family members. You can however pre-register yourself if you want to be a part of this highly respected forensics program. Their policy is here, and for questions, contact:

Dr. Lee Meadows Jantz
Coordinator of the Forensic Anthropology Center
Department of Anthropology
250 South Stadium Hall
Knoxville, TN 37996-0760
Phone: (865) 974-4408
E-mail: donateinfo@utk.edu

Serenading with Firearms

Happy Epiphany! If you’re like most people in the South, you may have no idea what this means.  January 6th is a day celebrated around the world as the day God manifested as Jesus Christ, and is, what came as quite a shock to me, the 12th day of Christmas in the song.

While Epiphany most often takes the backseat to Christmas in North America, it is still celebrated and preferred by some of the old timers in parts of Appalachia, referring to it as “Old Christmas.”

I drank too much wine on New Christmas Eve to tell about the serenading tradition, so I figured Epiphany is as good a day as any since Old Christmas is the most revered as a holy day, and the end to the whole Christmas season.

Would you believe me if I told you that deep in the hollers in Appalachia children roam the streets with guns and fireworks in costumes and the occasional blackface to terrorize their neighbors on Christmas Eve- as tradition??

Well, that’s exactly what happened for years, known as serenading and is a practice that is fading fast.  Like a Mischief Night gone awry, when the kids set off serenading, the neighbors know exactly what to expect. A Foxfire Christmas details many stories about this tradition, one such described by Tammi English and Holli Hickox where children would show up together around midnight on Christmas Eve and all at once shoot off shotguns and fireworks, ring cowbells, and make as much noise as possible to scare their neighbors.  Often, “the neighbors would invite them in and give treats to everyone such as oranges, apples or even small toys (21-22).” It was also common for the kids to play tricks on their neighbors such as painting their horses faces black with shoe polish (30) or taking apart a neighbor’s wagon and reassembling it on the roof (24).

This tradition at its height is as much lore now as the ghost of Christmas past, and the customs of the old country only live on through fruitcake and the faint glow of candles in the window.

The Bloody Past of The Read House Hotel

When I started working for the Tennessee Wildlife Federation, my eyes lit up with joy when on my first day I was handed a history book of the Federation’s story since 1946 titled Sportsmen United: the Story of the Tennessee Conservation League. To my surprise, what I found on the first page sent shivers down my spine, “On February 12, 1946 in a room in Chattanooga’s new Read House, fifty-three men from around the state gathered to build a new organization on the ashes of an old one.” 

My jaw dropped. I had recently been researching the Read House; however, not for its ties to the state’s conservation efforts, but for it’s haunted history.  The Read House stands in a location that has served as a hotel of some name or another for almost 170 years.  Beginning as the Crutchfield House built in 1847, it, like every other ornate building with a nice porch, was used as a civil war hospital by Union troops in 1863. Thomas Crutchfield purposely built the hotel in front of the Western & Atlantic Railroad stop in Chattanooga, which made it all the more convenient for trainloads of mutilated soldiers with body parts dripping off to arrive by the hundreds.

Just a few years later in 1867, Chattanooga was immobilized by a flood that covered the town of then 5,000 people.  One report tells of steamboats from the river floating all the way to 5th St. The Crutchfield house flooded up through the first floor, and what the waters didn’t destroy, a fire shortly after finished. A prominent Doctor, John T. Read took over and rebuilt the hotel as The Read House, where the most elite travelers would stay.

In fact, legend has it that one such traveler never left. Her name is Annalisa Netherly and like any good ghost story, she is shrouded in mystery. Some say she arrived sometime in the 1920’s with a suitor. The version I like the best goes that the gentleman she came to town with caught her with another man and was so angry he “neatly” decapitated her while she was bathing in room 311. In another version, Annalisa is a prostitute who was murdered by a soldier. Yet another, and the most dull, is she committed suicide with no back story.

Countless guests and employees have seen her, and all know one thing for sure: Annalisa doesn’t like cigarettes or men. She appears to many as a woman in white, and most often manifests herself to children. Another tragic detail is that Annalisa is pregnant.

Annalisa still makes it her business to keep out unwanted guests to room 311 so if you want to see her, leave your smokes at home.

The Knoxville Girl

I was living in New York City a few years back and was staying the weekend at a community farm outside of New Paltz. For anarcho/hippie dinner one night, I was eating mashed potatoes loaded with nutritional yeast when a huge chunk of my tooth just fell out. When I finally got back to the City, my regular dentist was on vacation so I had to go to his fill-in guy.  I walk into the office and I see the stereotypical hunting dog pictures and UT orange that you would see in any doctor/dentist office in Tennessee.  It was so familiar, in fact, that I forgot where I was for a second.

I met the dentist and we began to talk about what happened/family history, etc. and I mentioned I was from Tennessee.  He told me that he too was from Tennessee and went to UT Knoxville before becoming a military dentist (as if the orange sea wasn’t already an indicator).  He shot me up with Novocaine and as the sweet, metallic taste of blood was still dripping from my gums he began to hum the Louvin Brother’s Murder Ballad I hadn’t heard in years:

Knoxville Girl – 

I met a little girl in Knoxville
A town we all know well
And every Sunday evening
Out in her home I’d dwell

We went to take an evening walk
About a mile from town
I picked a stick up off the ground
And knocked that fair girl down

She fell down on her bended knees
For mercy she did cry
Oh, Willie dear, don’t kill me here
I’m unprepared to die

She never spoke another word
I only beat her more
Until the ground around me
Within her blood did flow

I took her by her golden curls
And I drug her ’round and ’round
Throwing her into the river
That flows through Knoxville town

Go down, go down, you Knoxville girl
With the dark and roving eyes
Go down, go down, you Knoxville girl
You can never be my bride

I started back to Knoxville
Got there about midnight
My mother she was worried
And woke up in a fright

Saying, “Dear son, what have you done
To bloody your clothes so?”
I told my anxious mother
I was bleeding at my nose

I called for me a candle
To light myself to bed
I called for me a handkerchief
To bind my aching head

Rolled and tumbled the whole night through
As troubles was for me
Like flames of hell around my bed
And in my eyes could see

They carried me down to Knoxville
And put me in a cell
My friends all tried to get me out
But none could go my bail

I’m here to waste my life away
Down in this dirty old jail
Because I murdered that Knoxville girl
The girl I loved so well

Dark, right?  And that’s not even the most tragic in the murder ballad tradition. The song Knoxville Girl musically came from the traditional English and Irish ‘The Oxford Girl’ and ‘The Wexford Girl,’ moving the location from Europe to Tennessee.

But who was the Knoxville Girl?  Do the ballads come from real history?  In her case, yes.

Her name was Mary Lula Noel from Pineville, MO. In 1892 she was murdered by a man she had been dating named William (Oh Willie Dear don’t kill me here/I’m unprepared to die) Simmons of Joplin, MO.  She was missing for one week and then found floating in the Cowskin Creek with bruises around her neck.  She had no water in her lungs and had been thrown in after her death, like a careless afterthought.  Simmons never disclosed his motive, and was charged with murder by blunt force object and strangulation.

While Mary was from Missouri, the song Knoxville Girl was unquestionably about her. And though her life was cut short in beautiful youth, her memory still haunts the hills and hollers from Appalachia all the way to dentist offices in NYC.

The World’s Most Famous Melungeon?

EAP

The Emancipation Proclamation that freed slaves went into effect in 1865 in America, but it was already well-known in the South that there had been a groups of free “people of color” for a few hundred years. Under the holdover British doctrine defining who is/isn’t a slave, the partus sequitur venrem, it was common practice that children were given the social status of their mother at birth.  Meaning, if the father was black or Indian but the mother was white, the child was considered ‘white’ socially.

As you can imagine, there were many groups of people with mixed origin, but none more fabled and romanticized than the dark skinned, blue eyed Melungeons of the Appalachian region.  Legends were that they were survivors from the lost colony of Roanoke, or one of the lost Tribes of Israel. They were also speculated to be of Cherokee, gypsy, Turkish, Spanish, Phoenecian, etc. decent. The legend also is that Elvis Presley descended from the melungeons.

The following is taken from “The Melungeons: The Resurrection of A Proud People; An Untold Story of Ethnic Cleansing in America,”by Dr. N. Brent Kennedy (p. 140)

Yes, Elvis Presley had North Carolina roots; his mother’s family left western North Carolina in the early 1800s, taking with them their legend of a Cherokee and Jewish heritage. His maternal great-great-great grandmother was supposedly “a full blooded Cherokee” from Tennessee named Morning Dove White. However, White is a far more common Lumbee, Melungeon, and Powhatan than Cherokee surname, and Morning Dove is an uncommon Cherokee given name. Also, the man she married, William Mansell, had been something of a renowned Indian fighter, making his choice of a “full-bloodied Cherokee” questionable. Mansell’s family was also native South Carolinian since the 1700s, placing them more in Lumbee than Cherokee territory. In any event, William Mansell and Morning Dove White settled in Alabama around 1820, and had several children, including John Mansell, Elvis’s great-great grandfather. John later abandoned his family to run off with a younger woman named Mandy Bennett (another Lumbee surname).

In 1870, John’s son White Mansell married a woman named Martha Tackett from Tennessee. Martha also possessed a common Melungeon surname and, even more appropriately, claimed to be Jewish. Elaine Dundy’s excellent biography of Elvis provides fascinating genealogical background and unintentionally paints a rather convincing Melungeon heritage for the “King of Rock and Roll.

There is really almost too much to say about the myth of the melungeons; however, in 1969 Eloy Gallegos conducted a study where 177 DNA samples were taken from people in the Newman’s ridge area of East Tennessee (The Melungeons: The Pioneers of the Interior Southeastern United States, 1526-1997). He discovered that the closest matches came from Libya, Cyrpus, Malta, Spain, Italy and Portugal, with very little occurrence of Cherokee DNA (p. 80).

In 2012, melungeon DNA was collected again to settle the origin dispute once and for all. In an article published in the Journal of Genetic Genealogy, scientists proved that melungeons are the offspring of sub-Saharan African men and white women of northern or central European origin.

No gypsy or Indian magic, no lost tribes or civilizations; just people with DNA pretty common to everyone else in the Tennessee/North Carolina/Virginia area.

The Curse of Davis Market

I do a lot of things half-assed; this adventure was no exception.  On a steamy, late July day, my former college roommates and I left Nashville to return to the town of Murfreesboro (20 whole minutes away) where we had all attended Middle Tennessee State University. Our mission: to break the curse of Davis Market.

Davis Market, situated at the crossroads of Main Street and Tennessee Boulevard, is best known as being one of the many veritable “Center(s) of the Universe.”  They sell Boone’s Farm and other fine malt liquors, incense, alien pipes and other terrible shit college kids (and me) love.

davis

Legend has it that once you purchase something from Davis Market, in the Center of the Universe, that Earth’s gravitational pull snares you in to returning to Murfreesboro.  Another variation is that Murfreesboro will “follow” you forever.  Soldiers go away and think they have died in Iraq only to wake up at the VA hospital in Murfreesboro. Expecting mothers with weeks left in pregnancy who are just passing through will spontaneously give birth and have to go to a Murfreesboro Hospital. New construction forces a town to move their cemetery and all the bones end up in Murfreesboro because of one asshole who didn’t break the curse. And the higher you get, the sillier the stories become.

We definitely did not want this to happen to us so we grabbed a shoe, a hammer and some nails.  There are two parts to breaking the curse of Davis Market, neither of which we fully executed.  One is to nail one shoe to a particular tree in “Peck Forest” (the trees between the Admissions Building and Peck Hall), and the other is to pee on the geographical center of Tennessee.  We all brought symbolic shoes but when we got to the tree, one of the boys whined that it would hurt the tree to nail our shoes into it.  We ended up stuffing our shoes into holes in the tree because we are weenies who feel bad for trees.

shoe

We had stopped off at Davis Market on the way to Peck Forest and got some Boone’s Farm so we would be ready to pee when we got to the geographical center of Tennessee. Unfortunately, as soon as we rolled up to the stone marker, some kid comes out of nowhere and just sits down next to us. I’m pretty sure the City just pays her to hang around and act creepy so we asked her to take our picture and left.

center

Keeping in mind that we have come nowhere near breaking the curse of Davis Market, the same four of us were sitting in a bar in Nashville a week later and the notorious MTSU Philosophy professor Principe waltzes through the door.

The curse continues to haunt us and must be overcome.

Come for the Heroin, Stay for the Polar Bears

 

Polar Bears (6)

I posted this image on Instagram the other day and got one of two responses. Some were intrigued and wanted to know more about where and what it was, but the people who already know where it was, they wanted to know what the hell I was doing there.

One PM went like this:

Friend – “Are you getting drugs?”

Me – “No, do you need some?”

Friend – “OMG Why are you in Edgehill Angela? You should stay out of there”

Me – “I just stopped to take a picture.  I swear I went right back to my safe little village of East Nashville just after.”

Bordering the likes of the Belmont Mansion, the Condos at 2600 Culture Wipe Pike,  and Music Row; Edgehill is the last real holdout of gentrification anywhere around it. In 2013, it “won” one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the U.S., but Nashvillians know it better for the six foot tall, 800 pound polar bear statues.

snow dome

So, why are there polar bears in Nashville, TN, the very  home of the snow dome? The answer is custard.

A man by the name of Gio Vacchino of the Mattei Plaster Relief Ornamental Company created the bears for the Polar Bear Frozen Custard shops on Gallatin Road and West End Avenue (in Nashville.  No one knows for sure how many more he created for shops all over the Southeast).  Custard wasn’t quite the craze everyone thought it would be I guess, so after WWII, the shops closed and the bears were bought by Reverend Zima Hill for his front yard at 1408 Edgehill Avenue.  He also placed two in front of the local funeral home.

The two at the funeral home were sold (one lives next door to the famous meat and three Monell’s in Germantown; the other is broken and in a backyard down the street) and the other two ended up as property of the city once the home at 1408 Edgehill was sold (1408 Edgehill is currently a halfway house called Oxford House- Polar Bear).

Students from Tennessee State University were a part of the team to restore the crumbling polar bears, and in 2004, MDHA created the Polar Bear Plaza at the corner of Edgehill Avenue and 12th Avenue South.

In the winter make sure to drive by and see them all dressed up for Christmas with garland, just waiting for the snow that will never come.

 

 

 

Tate’s Lane Cemetery and Ghost Railroad

Tates Lane and Pet Cemetery (33)

So, technically the cemetery is called the Mt. Juliet Memorial Gardens, but I don’t know anyone who refers to it by anything other than Tate’s Lane Cemetery.  The main entrance is actually one street down from Tate’s Lane on Caldwell, but it is on the Tate farm original property.

To get to the cemetery, you must first cross the railroad tracks, which at the time when I was in high school, were used infrequently by the 137 mile line of the Nashville & Eastern railroad based out of Lebanon, TN. It was originally a part of Jere Baxter’s Tennessee Central line which went out of business in 1968 and was left abandoned (has  served as the commuter rail from Lebanon to Nashville, the Music City Star since 2006).  It was in the 1960’s where the haunted rails stories began.  Before the railroad was reestablished as the Nashville & Eastern line, stories began to circulate that cars would just die when passing over the tracks on the way into the cemetery, not leaving the driver enough time to get out before the fatal clash with the oncoming train.

Tates Lane and Pet Cemetery (73)

As if the threat of instant death wasn’t enough, the cemetery was, and probably still is, associated with Satanic and Masonic rituals (there are an incredible amount of Masons buried there- just look for the compass, anchors, beehives, clasped hands, crown and cross, double headed eagle, triangle with an eye, father time and a weeping virgin, hand holding heart, keystone with letters HTWSSTKS, a five pointed start, a snake and cross, and pretty much any other symbol on a gravestone).

In the 1990’s, many of the graves were defaced and some stolen.  There were so many problems with people vandalizing a large Jesus statue, that the statue is no longer there, only the platform on which he once stood.

Tates Lane and Pet Cemetery (50)

 

 

 

 

Voodoo Village

Would you believe that there’s a place outside of Memphis where shrunken heads sit atop a spiked fence, a haunted school bus comes ‘alive’ to trap all who enter, and where screams of children echo through the woods?

Yeah, me neither.  However, stories come from somewhere and Voodoo Village is in fact very real.

Located in South Memphis, it is still surrounded by wilderness.  A man named Washington (Wash) Harris shut off his home and community with a fence and a huge iron gate in the 1950’s, allegedly to practice “dark arts.”

People became curious about the property because of the yard art and symbols everywhere.  Story goes that the compound actually did block nosy people from exiting with a school bus and many people have been chased away by machetes or worse.

There is a folk-art temple, named St. Paul’s Spiritual Temple, that is visible from the road covered with voodoo dolls, candles, moons, crosses and Masonic symbols.  Neighbors would talk about ceremonies with large bonfires, speaking in tongues and gulp; the walking dead.  Harris denies practicing voodoo, yet never discloses what is really going on behind the gate.

There are lots of accounts from visitors to the compound on the Facebook page here.  It is made pretty clear that these people just want to be left alone, by any means necessary…