Tennessee

Prehistoric Tennessee

I know I talk a lot of bullshit on this page, but here’s something that is absolutely true: During the Paleozoic period, Tennessee was covered by a warm shallow sea.  The sea was home to my favorite pre-dinosaur – the trilobite, along with corals and more sea creatures that today is mind blowing to think about living in the Volunteer State.

You may have collected Indian Money as a kid (I still do). To me, they are even more special to find than a shark’s tooth while combing the mud or the sand because Indian money is actually a 245-750 million year old fossil of a crinoid.

indian money

Crinoids are echnoderms (think sea urchins, star fish, sea cucumbers, sand dollars, etc.). Also known as sea lilies, they look a bit more like plants than animals.  The Paleozoic crinoids that lived in Tennessee thrived in shallow waters and tide pools. Although you will not find crinoids living in the murky, warm waters of Old Hickory lake, they are not extinct. Crinoids of today live in deep sea but rarely wash ashore.

The next time you’re out by the Harpeth River dig your toes into the mud and see what comes up. You just might find a piece of history.

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Hank Williams Wuz Here

Hank Williams is the South’s very own George Washington who slept, ate, and even died all over the place. The night of his death is still a much disputed bar game where everyone likes to argue what they think really happened.  People will tell you that he ate his last meal in Bristol, VA at a place called Burger Bar but others think that he wouldn’t have wanted to eat after being shot up with morphine by a Doctor in Knoxville (after the chloral hydrate and all the booze he had already had), and that his last words really may have been that he did not want anything. It’s more probable that his chauffeur was eating a burger from Burger Bar as Williams died. And actually, there may (?) not have even been a Burger Bar at that time.

And where did he die? We know for sure that it was somewhere between Knoxville, TN and Oak Hill, WV but the exact location is impossible to know. Was it the morphine, the combo, or just bad luck? His reported cause of death “insufficiency of the right ventricle of the heart” but he could have just been done.

Nevertheless; he died the modern day seafarer’s death which has a beauty all its own – on the road.

What is certain is that his life was in decline as he started down his own lost highway to Canton, OH. It was New Years Eve, 1952 (heading into 1953): An ice storm caused his show in Charleston, WV to cancel so Charles Carr began driving Williams to his next show at the Windsor Theater in Canton. They stopped in Knoxville at the Andrew Johnson hotel to get Dr. Morphine, then at Burger Bar in Bristol (113 miles from Knoxville), and then again at a gas station in Oak Hill, WV (157 miles) where Carr discovered Williams was dead.

And perhaps it was his traveling spirit that keeps him around.  There are more stories than I can count of people who have seen his ghost either as him or a white mist at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.  He is also active in the alley behind the Lower Broadway Honky Tonks in Nashville that back up to the Ryman’s backstage exit, thehallways in the Andrew Johnson Hotel in Knoxville, the Tyree Funeral Home where his body was autopsied, and homes and honky tonks all over the South.

Have YOU seen him?

Help Solve the Meriwether Lewis Mystery: Suicide or Murder?

 “It is so hard to die” Last words of Meriwether Lewis.

October 11, 1809 at the age of 35; National hero and Governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory commits suicide off the Natchez Trace in Tennessee. His name: Meriwether Lewis.

Really? I think we should talk…

  • Lewis – Thomas Jefferson’s most trusted confidant and right-hand man;
  • Lewis – who just finished an incredibly famous expedition (hello Lewis and Clark); and
  • Lewis – the only one with the secret word (ARTICHOKE) to decode the pre-computer cypher that he and Jefferson exclusively used to communicate secrets at distance?

Is he the Kur(d)t Cobain of politicians, or was it something more (side note: he may have been suffering from syphilis)? Something tells me, and my favorite weirdo historian Brad Meltzer (main source of this post) that every ounce of evidence points to this case being MURDER.

Lewis’ original course was to ride from St. Louis to New Orleans and back to Washington but something happened where Lewis decided it was too dangerous to make the journey and ends up in Memphis.  Congress begins to reject Lewis’ expenses and he makes his way down the South’s famous robber horse trail – the Natchez Trace – where he spends the last night of his life on October 10th at Grider’s Stand in Lincoln County, TN (Star map: Just East of Hohenwald – the home of Loretta Lynn).

Here are the major players in this seemingly 1990’s era soap opera drama:

  1. General James Wilkerson – Governor of the LA Territory for seven years when Jefferson removes him and gives the position to Lewis. Revenge is the most powerful motive of all.
  2. Major James Neeley – protector of Lewis on his journey, but “happened” to be hired by General James Wilkerson – Lewis’ enemy. Wrote Jefferson to detail the events of Lewis’ suicide.
  3. Robert Evans Griner and Priscilla Knight Griner – Inn Owners at “Grider’s Stand” (The Inn’s official title being “Griner” but colloquially known as “Grider’s Inn” which stuck). Robert accused as key witness to possible murder, and Priscilla the only witness. Many think they have been hired by Wilkerson to murder Lewis.
  4. Gilbert Russell – wrote to Jefferson that Lewis was suicidal before he came to Grider’s stand so the suicide seemed plausible to Jefferson.

However, handwriting analysis speculates Russell’s letter to be a forgery. Further, Neeley was actually in court in Franklin, TN on the day of Lewis’ death, not Grinder’s Stand – on the day he “wrote” of Lewis’ suicide.

A couple of things stand out as to why this may not have been suicide:

  • The weapon used was a 65 caliber flintlock pistol with lead balls weighing as much as a AA battery.  All accounts by Priscilla (there are THREE…) say that she heard at least two or three gunshots. Lewis sustained two verified gunshots – one to the chest and one to the head. Now, is it really plausible that he shot himself in the chest and with a coke can sized bullet hole, reloads and shoots himself in the back of the head?
  • The doctor who examined Lewis’ body in 1848 wrote that his death may have been that of an assassination.
  • Rumor has it that Lewis was carrying a list that ranked soldiers by order of threat and James Wilkerson was first on the list. Could this have been the motive?

But who killed Mr. Body?

And perhaps the biggest mystery is why the National Parks Service will not allow the body to be exhumed. A mere 200 yards from Grinder’s Stand, a monument (erected 1848) to Lewis stands where his grave is thought to be. The descendants of Lewis have filed to have the body removed; however, the Parks Service will not allow a body to be posthumously disturbed.

Even wilder is that YOU can help solve this mystery! Visit Solve the Mystery to learn more about how you can help advocate for the exhumation of Lewis’ grave and close this chapter in history once and for all.

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.