Every once in a while someone will claim there are tunnels under downtown Nashville, linking the old buildings and running out to the river. What’s strange is that is this obviously true. There are newer tunnels like the storm water system under Second Avenue or the tunnel that connects Legislative Plaza with the Capitol. And there are older tunnels through which heat and electric have been run. Shoot, Timothy Demonbreun and Elizabeth Bennett lived in a cave! Is a cave with two entrances not a tunnel?
So, why, when you ask most folks if there are tunnels under downtown Nashville, do they say “No”?
This is the answer I heard from a man I’ll call Elias. Elias isn’t from Nashville. He’d flown in specifically to retrieve Rabbi Heiman’s remains, if there were any. A friend of a friend got me a meeting with him over breakfast before he left again, never to return.
Here is what he told me, parts of which, obviously, had been told to him.
There are a series of tunnels running under downtown. Not utility tunnels, but honest secret passages, designed to allow people to sneak out of buildings unseen and down to the river.
Most of these tunnels were put in places shortly after the Civil War. Regardless of where their sympathies lied, the occupation was very difficult for the citizens of Nashville. Fields had been destroyed. Almost all of the trees had been cut or burned down. The streets were thick with soldiers and the attendant illicit businesses that sprang up to serve them. And then, after Lincoln’s assassination, there was a very real fear that the Federal government would come into the South and annihilate it in retaliation
People wanted protected escape routes. And so the tunnels were put in.
After the the destruction of the city ceased to feel like an immediate threat, the tunnels started to serve other purposes. They became a way for white men to slip in and out of Black Bottom unseen by disapproving neighbors, for liquor and prostitutes to make their way into “good” establishments, and, by the early 1900s, there were rumors of something else,that the tunnels had become a safe place for the worst kinds of men.
People disappeared in the tunnels. They went in and they never came out.
This was kept secret, as much as possible, by the town fathers because no one wanted the police to look into what else was going on in the tunnels.
But it was impossible to cover up the disappearance of Portia Rutledge, a lovely girl from a prominent family. She had been with her sister and her sister’s husband, exploring the tunnels that ran from the brand new Hume Fogg school towards the river. Her sister and brother-in-law had turned a corner just moments before her, mere seconds, and she was gone. She never rounded that corner.
They searched the tunnels as far as they could, but by 1920, it was a maze beneath the city streets. They came up for help and a search party was organized. For three days they searched, but there was no sign of her.
Weeks later, two street kids were in the tunnels, trying to escape the heat and the truant officer, when they heard faint sobbing. They followed the noise and, eventually, found Portia Rutledge’s body, maybe a hundred yards from one of the Hume Fogg tunnel entrances.
Elias told me that there wasn’t a mark on her body.
This is where the story gets very strange. Portia Rutledge’s body had been found, within easy distance of a tunnel entrance, and yet no one would go in and retrieve the body. Stranger still, the papers were still reporting her missing. People were speculating that she’d fallen in love with someone her family disapproved of and that she was probably living in Bowling Green, laughing at everyone still looking for her.
One of the families in Rabbi Heiman’s congregation owned a dry goods store downtown. And they had begun to hear a woman sobbing in the basement of their store. They mentioned this to Rabbi Heiman, who thought it was strange, but he assured them that the sobbing woman was probably just a prostitute living in the tunnels. He advised them to leave some bread on the other side of their tunnel entrance, just a little something to make her life easier.
Shortly after that the owner of the store overheard the street kids talking, not only about the crying in the tunnels, but the body their friends had discovered, and the store owner became very concerned. By the description the kids gave, he was certain that it was Portia Rutledge. He was also becoming more certain that the sobbing in the tunnel was connected to her body being left in the tunnel. The shop owner went to see the Rabbi and told him his suspicions and what he overheard the kids saying.
“Her body has been found,” Rabbi Heiman said, “and yet no one has moved it?”
“I know this is not our concern,” the shop owner said. “Maybe this is some kind of family tradition?”
But they both knew that was not true.
Rabbi Heiman mulled this over for days. He felt compelled, suspecting her spirit was trapped down there, to try to do something. He also knew that he might be placing his family and congregation in a great deal of danger if he, in any way, made it seem as if they could be blamed for her disappearance. Even connecting himself to her recovery might be enough to cast suspicion for her death.
“I should go look,” Rabbi Heiman said to the shop owner.
“No, no,” the shop owner said. “Let someone in the Chevra Kadisha go.”
“No. If there is trouble with her people, I will be the most likely to get out of it,” said the Rabbi.
He decided to go into the tunnels through the basement of the dry goods store and make his way up, unseen, to Hume Fogg. He never made it that far and he came out of the tunnel deeply shaken. The owner of the dry goods store helped him sit on a crate. The owner’s son brought him some water.
“Just a few blocks up,” he motioned with his hand, before wiping his brow, “I started to hear footsteps, heavy footsteps, in front of me. I dimmed my lantern and ducked into a side tunnel. I could hear the footsteps getting closer and closer. Finally, they were so loud I would have sworn there was a man not three feet from me. But I could see, even by dim light, that the tunnel was empty.
“I heard a voice, thought. A man’s voice. He said ‘This ain’t no place for a man of God, Reverend. Down here’s all the stuff He don’t see.'”
“And the girl?”
“I didn’t find her. I will have to try again.”
“Let her own people worry about her,” the store owner said.
“But now I know,” the Rabbi said. “If I find her, I can leave a note for her family, tell them where to look.”
The Rabbi went down in the tunnels again the next day. He had been gone maybe an hour when the shop owner and his son heard distant screams.
“Rabbi?” The shop owner yelled into the tunnel entrance. “Rabbi!”
The two grabbed a lantern and started down into the tunnel. Far, far ahead of them, they saw a dim, shaking light rushing towards them.
The Rabbi was yelling, “Run! Go back! Go back!” They began to slowly back up, afraid to leave the tunnel without him. They were, maybe, five feet from the door to their basement. Their lantern cast a pool of light maybe ten feet beyond what came from the basement. And the man and his son both saw the Rabbi, for a second, at the far edge of the darkness. “Go back,” he said again.
And then he fell, or maybe his feet were yanked out from under him, and he hit the ground, hard. The man scrambled forward to try to grab the Rabbi, but the Rabbi screamed, “No,” and the man’s son dragged the man back into the basement. The son slammed the door.
The man and his son tried later that day to search the tunnels for any sign of the Rabbi. There was none. In the distance, they thought they sometimes heard heavy footsteps, though.
Later, after the story got out that the Rabbi had returned to St. Louis (a place the Rabbi had never actually even visited), the man and his son blocked the tunnel, at least a hundred feet beyond their door. Shortly after this, one of the other downtown business owners came to pay them a visit.
“You need to unblock the tunnel,” he said. “You can do what you want in your own store, but those tunnels remain open. Do you understand? We have a deal that the tunnels remain open.”
“Who has a deal?” the shop owner’s son asked.
The businessman looked angry and frightened. “It’s not any of your business.”
Elias told me that other things had happened, things that made the shop owner’s family very, very afraid, not of the thing in the tunnels, but of the other businessmen downtown. The Rabbi’s home burnt down, for instance, and the Rabbi’s widow and his children barely escaped with their lives. They were sent to St. Louis, where it was thought they’d be safer.
The shop keeper and his son began to put a little cash aside. Not even enough to be noticed. They didn’t want to raise any suspicions at the bank or among the other businessmen, didn’t want anyone gossiping about how strange it was that their profits were down, even as their foot traffic remained steady.
But enough so that whenever a hole was dug for a new building, they could pay a person to search whatever tunnels were discovered for the Rabbi’s remains.
Elias had been hired by the shop owner’s grandson, himself now an old man, to get into the tunnels opened up while they were excavating the new convention center.
“And did you find him?” I asked.
“I did,” he said quietly. “He was about a hundred yards from one of the Hume-Fogg entrances, just dust and bones and a few scraps of clothing. I was able to identify him by his cufflinks. Nearby was a woman’s skeleton.”
“Weird,” I said. “Do you think he found her?”
“No, I think his body had been placed near hers after he was killed.”
“My god. Did you recover her body, too?”
“No,” Elias said, quietly. “that was not my job.”
“And what about that thing, that man? Do you think he’s still down there?”
Elias stared at the people passing by us for a long, long time.
“I know he is,” he said. “Let me ask you? Do you think it’s possible that he is worse now than he was? That killing a man of God could make him worse? Or do you think it’s always been that bad down there? How could a city have sat on top of that for a hundred years?”
“You said they mentioned something about a deal.”
“Who would depend on a deal made with the likes of him?”