Tennessee

The Bell Witch

 

bell witch

I’ve put off talking about the Bell Witch because honestly I’m scared of her.  I grew up with the story in Hermitage, TN and I’m an Adams from where she was from so I was told not to tell it.  But here I go.

My mom bought me a Bell Witch book for Christmas this week simply called The Bell Witch.  It’s edited Brent Monahan but is the memoirs of Richard Powell – who married Betsy Bell, the most tormented of all the Bell Children.

I never read prologues because shit they’re mostly boring but I wish I had because I nearly crapped my pants at the beginning of chapter 1.  It begins:

“You first heard about the “Bell Witch” when you were 7.”

I WAS 7 WHEN I FIRST HEARD ABOUT THE BELL WITCH.  For ten seconds I literally thought the book was talking to me.  I read it over and over again until I realized Richard Powell was talking to his daughter.  It goes on to describe the first-hand account he lays out about the Bell Witch, Kate Batts, “in the event of his death.”

Kate Batts, Monahan describes as a unique American poltergeist – a weirder Beetleguise because she could hurt people.  I guess all the other poltergeists are just flashes of light and opening of cabinets but Kate Batts was something else entirely.  No, she could rip the covers of the Bell boys’ beds while simultaneously pull the fire out of Betsy Bell’s hair.  And it’s not just the Bell’s that seent it.

They enlisted the help of their neighbors once the hauntings got so bad.  That’a when slick Willy, Richard Powell, gets involved  – who by the way is a teacher in the town.  In the first six pages he describes how, “In keeping with the nature of the revival, she wore a simple linsey-woolsey dress without ribbons or lace, and yet she was exquisite to look upon…She was just shy of thirteen…”

So – Richard, a man of the world from Wisconsin or some shit already has an agenda because he later married Betsy Bell.  The 13 year old.  I’m no spring chicken and I get that older men married MUCH younger girls back then and even now in  most parts of the world.  My grandpa was away in WWII and was dating my grandma probably before she had her first period so whatever. BUT this is where the story gets good.

Kate Batts was definitely a weirdo.  By the time and even by today’s standards.  But was she a witch?  Was she the first american comedian?  Was she just a freak?

I dunno.  But here’s the deal.  She had a lot of “negroes” that she “took care of” and were in her retinue.  She was always begging wool and needles from townsfolk and people already started talking like she was a witch because they thought they were makin voodoo dolls and doing witchcraft.  Kate was married at the time, but her husband fell ill so she was essentially a woman of the world – and we all know that means trouble.  She went to church, but always late and one time sat on some dudes head who was really feeling that ol’ time religion and it really harshed his “jerking exercise.”

So, I do wonder, did the town cry witchcraft because she was different?  Because her slaves were her tribe and she was just a wild lady?  I mean, seriously – did her energy REALLY rip the covers off the Bell kids and pull their hair or was she so despised the family made it all up? Hatfields and McCoys aint got shit on this neighbor feud.

Did she hate John Bell because because she was a wackadoo christian (John Bell was thrown out of the church btw).  Did the joke go too far?  Or did she know something that we don’t know?  I think there’s something in Kate Batts that hated the Bell men but why? Did she think she was pious? Or was she harmed by them?

Do women just act out for no reason? Let’s be real – there was no poltergeist.  So what the hell was going on that it still remains in Tennessean’s collective memories?

There might be an interesting parallel with a recent Nashville Ballet Performance’s interpretation of Lizzie Borden.  In Nashville treasure, Paul Vasterling’s interpretation, Lizzie was being raped by her father and her mother stands by.  She is justified in an almost feminist way when she removes her clothes and murders her family brutally with an ax., shown beautifully thought ballet and lights of course.

Was she a feminist or completely insane?  I just wish I had the answers.  What do y’all think?

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.

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 Curse of the River Monster

Louisiana has it’s crawfish boils and Low Country has their shrimp and grits, but where I’m from – land of lakes and rivers – it’d be a sin to not have fried catfish grease dripping from the kitchen walls at any respectable reunion.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/8623220@N02/2179060294/

Like the Natives before us who gave offerings and sacrifice to that which was most important to their survival; the corn, rain, bears, etc.; us Southerners, lovers of tradition, carry the torch by giving up some of our fine young men so that our catfish may be forever multiplying – at least in story. An archetype as old as time, the curse of sea monster has been haunting man from day one. From Architeuthis to the white whale and everything in between, the legend always ends the same, and whoever sees the creature must pay the ultimate price.

Before Tennessee’s lakes were created (all but one – Reelfoot – that was formed naturally by the 1811-1812 earthquakes on the New Madrid fault line), our rivers were our shining glory.  Blessed with the Cumberland, Mississippi, and the Tennessee, fish protein was immensely important when North Carolina’s red headed stepchild (modern day Tennessee) was still being settled.  Oral tradition goes back into the early 1800’s about a monster catfish, some call him “Catzilla” who stalks the banks of the Tennessee River looking for his next victim. Some estimate that he is as big as a bus, “close to 25 feet long” with “frothing lips.”

In 1822, a farmer named Buck Sutton was fishing in the Tennessee when he saw that ominous sea serpent and understood he was on borrowed time for he knew “the curse.” He died a few days later from “the serpent’s curse,” but not before he got to tell his tale.

In 1827 Billy Burns was near the same spot as Buck and also witnessed the beast, which he described as aggressive, knocking him out of his canoe.  It was “snake-like” and bluish-yellow.  Poor Billy also died “mysteriously” just a few days later.

The killer fish lays low for a while but strikes again in 1829. This time the victim, Jim Windom, prolonged his death sentence by repenting and going to church, but there’s no escaping fate.  He died several months later.

After the rise of steam boats, the sightings – and the deaths – stop, but his bones were never found…

The Tennessee Terror may have never been discovered, but the bones of one prehistoric sea monster was.  Fossils uncovered in 1834 date a sea serpent that would have swam in what is modern day Alabama (and also very likely Tennessee) back to the Eocene epoch (56 to 33.9 million years ago). He measured in right around 70 feet.

You never know what may be lurking beneath the murky waters of the Tennessee…

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 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.

The Brass Stables – Nashville’s Only Exotic Dance Club

Nashville’s got plenty of strip clubs, just ask Pac Man Jones (never forget!) –

But it only has one “exotic” dance club which has been grandfathered in to have different regulations than the other strip clubs in town (i.e. their dancers do not have to follow the “three feet” rule because the building is so narrow, they literally cannot be three feet away from their clients).  It is not only the oldest “exotic” club in town, but it is also the one with the richest history.  The Brass Stables began as a fancy pants restaurant called the Brass Rail Stables and Lounge.  The restaurant was located on the second floor of the building, and the stables were below.  Today you can still see the original wood from the stables on the wall in the Brass Stables.

Andrew Jackson, then Governor of Tennessee and founder of the modern Democratic Party himself, kept his horse boarded there.  At the time, the restaurant and ‘lounge’ was really more of a brothel, which was where Andrew Jackson’s three week journey (read: wild party and celebration) to Washington began after he found out that he had won the Presidential Election.  Now, in case you missed that, Jackson’s presidency in theory started at what is now the Brass Stables in Nashville, TN.  Jackson was inaugurated on March 4, 1829 and his reception was so drunk and rowdy that Jackson climbed out of the window of the White House and went to a hotel.  The crowd refused to leave until bowls of liquor and spiked punch were put out around the White House lawn and eventually everyone got extra drunk. It took three months to restore the White House to the condition it was in before the Jackson inauguration party, all of which *technically* began at the Brass Stables.

Commune Country

I have a love/hate relationship politically with Tennessee.  On one hand, it  the State sometimes goes out of its way to keep progress from happening.  On the other, I just don’t feel the same pressure to care about the news here that I did in the Northeast.

The lack of governance is a tradition in Tennessee going back to when we were still a part of North Carolina.  The terrain of Tennessee created natural borders, and the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains in what is now East Tennessee made for an incredibly difficult passage from North Carolina.  This left Tennessee mostly to its own, making it a prime location for seekers of a utopian life.

Everyone has heard of ‘The Farm,” the longest running hippie commune (since 1971) in Summertown, TN, but the first major commune was settled in 1825.  A radical Abolitionist Socialist named Fannie Wright established Nashoba, a 2,000 acre experimental commune to emancipate slaves on the banks of the Wolf River in modern day Germantown, near Memphis.    Its goal was to provide work, whereby the slaves could buy their freedom to be transported to Liberia or Hati; a full 37 years before Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862.  It failed after three years of operation due to lack of funding as the outside community fears of interracial marriage  grew.  All remaining slaves were emancipated in Hati.

One of the more successful communes was started in 1880 by English Author Thomas Hughes for “second sons.”  In Victorian England, only the first born son stood to inherit the family estate, and often a career.  The “second sons” of the gentry class founded the doomed Rugby in search of  land ownership, freedom of expectations, and an overall cure for boredom. While Ruby lasted in very small numbers through the 1960’s, it was primed for failure as the soft hands of the second sons were not used to getting their hands dirty.  They produced crops, but disease and exhaustion caused most to leave by 1887.

Shockingly, the late 1800’s gave rise to a fierce socialist movement in the South. In 1854, Julius Augustus Wayland settled the Ruskin Colony, named after the English Author John Ruskin.  The goal of the movement was to form a network of socialist communes for a “co-operative commonwealth.” As a Socialist society, all members had to work.  They were highly successful an manufactured $3 pants, suspenders and belts,chewing gum, snake oil ‘remedies,’ a vapor cabinet, and cereal coffee (whatever that is).  They also had a newspaper, The Coming Nation, which had around 60,000 subscribers at it’s height.  In the end, all citizens were not created equal as disputes went unresolved regarding distribution of wealth or “membership rights,” as well as a growing divide between the more traditional Socialists and members with anarchic trends.  It collapsed in 1901.

Today, Tennessee plays host to a large Amish community, a commune that is a safe space for rural gay men at the Short Mountain Sanctuary, and much more but the most fascinating is the Yellow Deli Community, an offshoot of the Twelve Tribes community in Chattanooga.  Started in 1973, their mission is to recreate biblical life.  To join, you surrender your possessions to the group and regress two thousand years in the past.   Women’s rights?  Never heard of ’em.  Child Labor laws? Psssssh.

So what kind of a name is “Yellow Deli” one might ask?  It’s the name of the restaurant they run where the bottom of the menu hints at their culty-tendencies baiting their customers with these simple words, “We serve the fruit of the Spirit… Why not ask?”   All members work in the restaurant which unfortunately has amazing food.  They spout “love” as a great motivator, but have been involved in scandal after scandal for suspected child abuse and labor law infractions.  They believe that their return to communal living will trigger the beginning stages of the apocalypse.

I can’t wait to see what happens next…

The Legend of Sugar Flat Road

When I was a child, my family moved from Houston, Texas to a farm just east of Lebanon, TN.  It was culture shock in reverse; as big city gal whose family wore black clothing, and our favorite foods were unpronounceable to the new neighbors (ke-suh-dee-ya we’d say, only to be corrected that that in fact, it was ke-suh-dil-luh), I was always kind of an outcast.  It allowed me to sit back and watch things though, and I was fascinated by one of my new classmates; Sterling Buster.

In my memory, Sterling Buster was the size of a pro wrestler at the age of six.  His sheer height could block the sun, and I would watch him in reverence.  At the time, Lebanon had a quiet, high-brow antiques circuit, and the very finest of them was at Cuz’s Antiques on the Lebanon Square.  When I found out that Sterling’s family owned Cuz’s, I couldn’t have been more pleased.  Cuz’s was the kind of place where you would walk in and see a stuffed tiger lunging toward a mounted elephant head, with deep red velvet Victorian sofas and Victrolas as the audience.  It had the most distinct smell of warm dust, and when the afternoon sun would shine through the enormous storefront windows, you could see all the tiny particles dancing through the air.

My mom collected old compacts so each week after church we made the antiques rounds on the square.  My life changed on one Sunday in 1996 when I first saw The Head at Cuz’s, and heard about the Legend of Sugar Flat Road.

legend

 

According to Legend, in 1989 two guys were out driving on Sugar Flat Road off Trousdale Ferry, a place that is to this day dominated by farms and nothingness, when they hit something.  To their surprise, they had run over what appeared to be a yeti.  They had the head taxidermied and Cuz’s ended up with it a few years after.  It was on display in the format that you see above with the handwritten sign saying, “Is this an alien,” that invites you to draw your own conclusion on what the fur covered head could be.

Sadly, Cuz’s closed it’s doors last year, but the mysterious Legend of Sugar Flat Road lives on.  The Head was auctioned and moved to Chattanooga, where it was displayed in a small place called the Curiosity Shoppe until last year.  It’s not clear where the head is now, but it has been replaced by a hologram at the Curiosity Shoppe!

 

What’s Lies Beneath – Percy Priest Lake

While never more than 30 minutes from a river, lake, waterfall, abandoned quarry or swimming hole; the only (sizable) natural lake in Tennessee is Reelfoot Lake, formed by the 1812 New Madrid earthquake.   To create the other lakes, the property was seized by the State and flooded, leaving behind underwater ghost-towns and the secrets of the people who once lived there…

Tennessee is well known for it’s Body Farm in the outskirts of Knoxville, where students and forensic experts study bodies in various stages of composition to enhance their knowledge of estimating situational time of death.  But before this world-famous Body Farm was another – now mostly buried at the bottom of the Percy Priest Lake just outside of Nashville.

Since the mid 1800’s, Uriah Moreland and his family owned a large farm that lie in the path to be flooded to create part of the Percy Priest Lake.  Rumors around town were that Uriah and his wife Abby practiced black magic rituals in the woods of their property.  Uriah was also famous for his temper and his disappearing farm hands, who had dubbed the place, “the body farm.”

When, in the 1960’s, the Civil Corp of Engineers came to remove Uriah and his family from the property, they found Abby and the children brutally murdered, but no sign of Uriah.

The family graves were moved, and the land flooded but Uriah was never found.  Many people claim to feel a “darkness” on the land at the edge of the lake where the Moreland farm once was, but maybe old Uriah himself is the one still haunting those woods.