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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Wizard Tree

In a time not so long ago, in a land not so far away lived two teenaged adventurers.  One; yours truly, and the other – my partner in crime.  After an afternoon of skateboarding at the old Donelson Hospital, we decided to drive down Old Hickory Boulevard, past the Hermitage and arrive in the then incorporated town of Lakewood, known mostly for it’s speed trap by Nashvillians.

But we had heard another story.  One of mystery and intrigue.  About halfway down Debow Street stood the large, carved tree, locally referred to as the Wizard Tree.  Under the cover of darkness, those brave enough to face it arrived to soak in it’s power.  The legend was that a man accidentally drove head first into the tree, and upon impact, had a vision of God speaking to him.

Now, you know that the holy ghost just loves to appear to people as chips, bananas and as cinnamon buns, but the wizard tree was something else all together.  The man who saw the vision deemed it his responsibility to carve the tree up, to bear witness to the face he saw.

A funnier story is that the man on the tree manifested himself after losing a pie eating contest with the devil and would play telephone with people who came to visit him from hell.

The tree was known around town to have powers, and the man on the tree looked much like a wizard, dubbing it the appropriate “wizard tree.”  Now friends, those were the days before cell phone cameras when we used our minds for memories so I do not have, nor do I know anyone that has a picture of this tree (if you do please add it to the comments!).  But I can tell you one thing: it did exist.

There’s a nice marina bar now over in the neighborhood and I drive by Debow sometimes just to see what’s happening.  The tree is no longer there and the street feels different.  My adult mind also wonders how a man could have possibly crashed into the tree on such a narrow, small road.

But those thoughts are no fun.  I think I’ll just sit on Old Hickory Lake and remember things the way they were.

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

The Tale of the Wampus Cat

Monsters in America

It all started with “chest of drawers.” My particularly accented East Tennessee friend threw her head back at brunch and giggled that she used to think that a dresser (pronounced “chester-dra-wers”) was named after a man named Chester, and she always wondered who this Chester was and why he had so many drawers.

I just wondered why in the hell my family didn’t just call it a dresser?  We talked and talked until we got to “catawampus” and not a one of us could confidently define it, only what we had heard it in relation to. Of course, the first dispute was what the actual word was, and according to Wikipedia there is quite a range:

  • catawamptious
  • catawampous
  • cattywampus
  • cattywampous
  • caliwampus
  • caliwampous
  • cankywampus
  • kittywampus
  • gittywampus
  • skiwampus

For a ridiculous word, why the variation? What’s up with the cats? Was there a cat? Can wampus be a verb? It sent me in a downward spiral which in truth, does not lead to a very interesting etymology (probably old Norse or Scandanavian for crooked).

However, it did lead to some interesting Tennessee lore about the Wampus Cat…

In the hills of Tennessee skulks a creature – half mountain cat, half woman who walks on two legs and howls in the night. The woman was once the most beautiful Cherokee in all the land named Running Deer.  Running Deer’s husband, Great Fellow, went hunting one night to slay the evil spirit Ewah. He came back wild and half crazy, leaving Running Deer to angrily confront Ewah.  She wore the mask of a wildcat on her face for protection and fought viciously and bravely.  Due to her courage, she assumed the role of guardian against all evil spirits on the land. Running Deer is still believed by the Cherokee to protect the sacred hunting ground surrounding her home in East Tennessee, and spark fear in the hearts of white men across the Smoky Mountains.

Many believe that Running Deer is the Wampus Cat, whose legend spans all of East Tennessee.  Everyone’s got some drunk uncle or ex-boyfriend’s mom who has seen The Wampus Cat over there – although the tale of the Wampus Cat is slightly different.  The Wampus Cat was still a Cherokee woman, but she became so as punishment.  She snuck out to her husband’s hunting trip disguised in skins of a wildcat and overheard stories of magic that were only reserved for men.  The medicine man fused the skins to the woman and she was forced to live as an outcast.

Always in the dead of night, the Wampus Cat appears screeching and howling with giant yellow glowing eyes and huge wildcat paws. The Wampus Cat is also known as a harbinger of death for once one hears her cry, someone will die within the next three days.

Have you seen or heard the Wampus Cat?

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.