For whatever reason, the South is a haunted landscape. Perhaps it’s the confluence of so many cultures that came together, from all parts of Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, and the Native Americans themselves, each with their own folk traditions. And maybe it’s hard to not draw too broad a brush – the richly integrated cultures like Charleston and New Orleans seem to have the greatest diversity of ghostly inhabitants, and they put them out for everyone to see, from Revolutionary War heroes to voodoo legends. I think the Charleston Ghost Walk is one of the best I’ve ever taken, so if you’re in Charleston for Halloween or All Saint’s Day, make reservations now (www. http://bulldogtours.com/). Make them if you don’t read this till May.
But really, at Halloween, you can’t not talk about ghosties and ghoulies and long legged beasties and things that go bump in the night. Especially if you’re Southern, because this is a culture awash in ghosts, haints, boogers and other spirits. We’ve got strange lights in grave yards, voodoo priestesses, and tragic lovers. Nashville alone has so many phantoms the local ghost tour can’t get them all in. Most of my generation and my parents’ generation was brought up on the spooky retellings of Southern legends by the likes of the late Kathryn Tucker Windham, whose home was haunted by a friendly spirit she calls Jeffrey. You can watch her discussion by clicking on the link below.
When I was doing a story on local ghosts a few years ago for Murfreesboro Magazine, Gip Backlund, a ranger at the Stones River National Battlefield shared his perspective with me, saying that one of the reasons residents of this part of the country have some many hauntings and ghost stories is that those stories are the way we deal with the horrors of the past. Fair enough – especially coming from a guy who works on a Civil War battlefield.
In the wake of the War Between the States, the folks in this part of Tennessee and a host of other places had to deal with the monstrosity of war, the misery of occupation, not to mention find ways to reconcile with the ugly blot slavery had left. Perhaps hauntings were a way to remember the dead for those who remained.
As my historian friends, like Dr. Van West at the Center for Historic Preservation at MTSU, will remind me, the post-war era was tough from any perspective. While the Union Army took its time, going back and making an effort to identify and rebury the Union troops killed at a particular site (with the job of digging up and reburying the bodies often foisted off on U.S. Colored Troops), the same dignity wasn’t really afforded to Confederate rebels. And an unquiet burial makes for unquiet dead, at least in the popular imagination.
Once and awhile, a decent human being would take the time to bury all those who died on her land, and write to the families. Such is the case with Carnton Plantation in Franklin, Tennessee, and you can find its owner, Carrie McGavock, immortalized in Robert Hicks’ bestselling novel The Widow of the South. But even so, I’ve spent plenty of time at Carnton, and it’s odd seeing the cemetery from the windows and seeing the blood stains on the stairs where injured men were once stacked like cord wood will give you a turn. People died here, Northern, Southern, black and white.
So maybe when guests say they can hear phantom bugles and drums, or see a lone rider off in the fields, maybe it’s our way of hoping the people that died know we remember them and like that we come to their places of rest.
But the region is filled with ghosts that have nothing to do with war – or at least that war. Just down from my parents’ lovely Brentwood home, a church sits on the spot at Wilson Pike and Concord Road where a notorious tavern stood 150 years ago, where many a violent soul died in a fight. Half a mile away, the Brentwood library sits on what may have been a Native American burial site (at least one grave was found during construction). And nearby Ravenwood was named for former local resident Sam Houston (Native Americans called him the “raven”), who lit out of Tennessee when one of the Wilson girls jilted him.
As I wrote this, I asked friends on my Facebook page to tell me their ghost stories. I was astonished at the number I got, many private messaged to me by people who said they just couldn’t put them out there, people would think them crazy. A dear friend up in Lexington, Kentucky recalled family stories of a mysterious man in black:
“… Everyone was working in the fields down in the holler below the house, right along the creek. In those days you got where you were going by walking, or riding a horse/mule, or in a wagon. While everyone was working with their heads down, a man rode up on a black horse wearing a very old suit. No big deal, people visited all the time, and suits were expensive. The rider chatted with the men and women in the field and according to witnesses, he had a ‘funny accent.’ He started to ride off and one of the men yelled at him that he was riding towards the cliff and couldn’t get past it. As this happened everyone looked up and the man was gone. The farmhand who spoke to him was my great grandfather who was a sober pastor. He said the man just vanished. No one saw him go. Then one of the kids said ‘look no hoof prints!’ and sure enough no hoof prints were visible in the freshly plowed earth.”
Others told me stories of the ghosts that walk Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island off the coast of Alabama, at old homes in South Carolina, Florida, Missouri and Louisiana. No matter where they came from, they had stories. And, as is obvious from what I’ve posted above, the stories of the ghosts often tied in to the rich histories of the locales they haunted.
As Halloween approaches, there are plenty of ghost tours to be had around my house. Franklin on Foot (http://www.franklinonfoot.com/ghost.htm) right here takes guests on a tour of the quaint town set on the fringes of the battlefield. There are, as it happens, plenty of non-Civil War era ghosts on that tour, including the little old lady who hangs out in the antique shop on 3rd Avenue that many residents knew in life.
In the Nashville area, Nashville Ghost Tours (http://www.nashvilleghosttours.com/) does a fantastic job. Frankie and Kim Harris and their crew do a whole lot to get things right, and they offer a variety of tours. The Haunted Tavern tour, which lets you have a few beers on Second Avenue, is a pretty ideal choice for a cool fall evening.
And really, you’ve got to love the stories of the haunted State Capitol building on the regular tour, where the famous nineteenth century architect William Strickland and budget crunching state legislator Samuel Morgan are both buried. As it happens, they fought over building expenses in life, and you can still hear them fighting it out like it’s 1852 some days in the Capitol. You’ll have great fun on all the tours NGT offers, I have never been disappointed.
The last time I was down in Huntsville, Alabama, I was lucky enough to be celebrating the Year of Alabama Food in Commerce Kitchen restaurant (ah, James Boyce, your menus are haunting in their own way) across from Robert and Jacquelyn Proctor Reeves, the founders of the Huntsville Ghost Walk. Aside from them being some of the most entertaining dinner companions you could have, they filled our ears with tales of haunted Huntsville. This is the last week for the ghost walk until June, so get out there if you’re reading right now and spending Halloween in Northern Alabama. http://www.huntsvilleghostwalk.com/tour.htm
In the numinous landscape of the South, with its deep, varied and sometimes violent history, ghosts seem to take root. Maybe they don’t want to move on, or maybe we want to hang on to them to remember our own histories – because their stories tell us something about ourselves. It’s Halloween, and that’s a good time to explore your own ghosts. Lay them to rest, perhaps – or at least share a little whiskey with those who went on before us.