The Man from Chattanooga

A thing that I know by now, but that still surprises me is how small the group of racist terrorists was in the 1950s and early 1960s. I mean, most white people were racist, so you’d think the number of people willing to act on it would be way high.

But as I research, I realize, no, I’m looking at a pool of less than 200 people here. Probably less than 100 (though not much less). So, when J.B. Stoner tells a Klan leader in 1958 that he’s got a guy in Chattanooga he likes to use for bombings, who was in the military, specifically in demolitions, and then an Atlanta racist in 1963 is talking about a young guy he just met from Chattanooga involved in bombings in Nashville, who was in the Marines, even if he’s not named either place, that’s the same dude.

That’s Stoner’s mystery man.


School bombing. Integrated religious recreational facility bombing. Lawyer on school integration’s house bombed. Ties to the Dixie Knights.

Nashville? No. Well, yes but that’s not what’s making me both excited and chagrined.


I don’t know shit. I do not know enough to write this book. I’m majorly panicking about it.

And no motherfucker has ever written anything about the Chattanooga bombings either!


I went to see my nephew yesterday and he is just so adorable. I can’t even tell you. He has one very light, but very bushy eyebrow. He may also have another, but where I was sitting and the lightness of the eyebrow made it hard to see the other. He makes cute little snores.

The Butcher’s Wife and I contemplated whether the Butcher can read minds or is just super empathetic and where the line is between those two things.

Then I went with some friends who have a podcast to Cragfont, a creepy old house up in Sumner County and it was delightfully and sufficiently spooky. I’ll link to the podcast when it goes live, because I was on it! Talking about festering crotch wounds and old Tennessee history and creepy things. All my favorites.

So, Cragfont was built by the Winchesters. General Winchester was a buddy of Andrew Jackson and he and Jackson and Judge Overton went and founded Memphis. Winchester’s son was Memphis’s first mayor. Jackson’s protege was Sam Houston. Sam Houston’s ex-wife, Eliza Allen (Houston Douglass) stayed with the Winchesters often enough that her silver tea cup is still in the house.

Winchester also owned a bunch of flatboats he hauled stuff back and forth to New Orleans on. One of his primary exports to New Orleans was bacon. And, I would imagine, other cured pig products.

This was also some of the early work of the Franklin family. And remember, the Franklins and the Douglasses were all intermarried. Also, Isaac Franklin’s mother was a Lauderdale and the Lauderdales were just east of the Winchesters.

I felt like I was hearing a story the Franklins figured into, but without hearing the Franklins properly figured in.

Anyway, we did have one strange experience in the house. I won’t spoil the podcast by telling you what it was, but I will note that one of the pictures in this bunch shows the location of the strangeness. Since it’s October, you should see if you get a spooky vibe off of any of them and give it a guess.


Tomorrow I’m going to testify before the Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Special Committee of the Tennessee State Legislature to tell what I know about the Looby bombing because there isn’t anyone else to do it.

I am both very excited and scared.

I also feel a kind of mix of pride and sorrow that I can say what I know and that I know things probably no one else in the state knows. It’s a strange thing to be sitting underneath the only brain who knows a big, important thing.

It’s also such bullshit. Why did it take 60 years for anyone to look into this? Why should I be alone in knowing this stuff? It’s not right.

Someone tried to kill that man, that hero, and then no one gave a shit. And he had to live in this community knowing that no one gave a shit enough to solve his assassination attempt. That sucks.

Anyway, I’m not the best person to do this, but Fate has made me the only person who can and so I will try my best and try to tell Looby’s story in a way that maybe will spur someone to give him some measure of justice.

A Rogan Has Found Me

After the good response I got to my talk on Saturday, I wrote up some of my findings on the Rogans for Pith, leaving out the parts that would specifically point to places I thought Bud Rogan might be, because, like I said in my presentation, I’m curious, but if the Rogans went to these lengths to keep white curiosity-seekers from bothering Bud, then I feel obliged to respect that at some level. I mean, I’m still curious, but I’m not going to make it too easy for nefarious people to start digging.

And anyway, as you all know, in my digging, I became as fascinated by this large extended family who found a way to take care of each other under extraordinary pressures designed to break them apart.

So, the post went up and yesterday a Rogan contacted me! I went digging through his Facebook stuff and I know you can’t say for sure, because the human mind finds patterns where there aren’t any, but I thought some of the living Rogans still resembled Bud. And I laughed to find that they are still very religious.

I mean, really, it’s not been that long. My grandma’s birthday was yesterday. She turned 96. Two of her grandparents were born before the Civil War. Of course behavioral patterns deeply ingrained in your family, especially through trauma, can persist.

But I think it still surprises me because, much like discovering that old wooden church in the cemetery, it moves facts from something you’ve been reading up on to something real in the world. “The Rogans’ faith was important to them” as a fact you can use to track them down in cemeteries and “The Rogans’ faith is important to them” as a fact you can see in a person…well, they are the same thing, but they don’t feel like the same thing.

I do this history stuff for me, because I find it fascinating. But this past month has been a weird and lovely display of things I wrote about having an impact in the world. Fred Douglas Park is getting corrected to Frederick Douglass Park. Some Rogans read my piece and, maybe, got a lead on an ancestor or two they didn’t have before.

That is awesome. I also, though, feel like it’s something I need to be mindful of. It would be so easy to pat myself on the back for my awesomeness and gloat around and just come to think that I can do no wrong. Positive feedback is a heady drug.

But I want to be mindful and humble to the work. I want to always have in the forefront of my mind that I can and will be wrong.

I want enough self-assuredness and confidence that I can do the work I like to do without crippling anxiety.

But I want to not get too confident in my own awesomeness. I don’t want to start lying to myself. I want a clear head to do good work, to tell the truth as I’ve found it.


In preparing for my talk on Saturday, I’ve been trying to make sure I have all the facts available to me on Bud Rogan nailed down. He died in 1905, but he’s not in the 1900 census. I’ve searched for every black male Rogan. I’ve searched for every black male named Bud, John, Will, William, or any variation, who doesn’t have a wife and he’s just not there.

So, I’ve been asking myself–where is he in 1900? This morning, when I was walking the dog, I thought of something: the story is that his family buried him in concrete to prevent “scientists” from stealing his body. I hadn’t thought much of the “scientists” part. After all, where were you going to run into “scientists” in Gallatin?

But doctors? And we know Bud had experience with doctors. Or at least with one doctor–William Lackey, who published a paper based on his examinations of Bud. And Lackey’s dentist buddy, Ernest Hickman. We know Bud’s condition caused him a lot of discomfort.

I wonder if he wasn’t in the hospital during the census in 1900? It seems like they must have had a way to account for patients, but if Lackey and/or Hickman had him stashed away someplace, maybe not? I mean, this is a part of how racism works that I’m just not sure how it would have played out. It’s hard to oversell how important Lackey was in Gallatin later on in his career. But he first examined Bud when he was young, still in med school.

Surely, Gallatin had some kind of hospital for black people. But that hospital probably wouldn’t have had state-of-the-art equipment. Not that the white hospital in Gallatin would have, either, but it would have been better than whatever was available to black people.

Would Lackey have been able to get into the black hospital? I think so. But if John were in the black hospital, again, it seems like there’d be some way to account for him in the census.

But here’s a guy who’s condition could make your career, if you’re Lackey. And there’s a hospital with better equipment right in town. Except that your patient isn’t allowed in that hospital so his presence in or near said hospital would have to be hidden…

I don’t know. Obviously, I’m reading a lot into a man’s absence from the census. But I don’t think his run in with Lackey was entirely pleasant or else why would his family work so hard to keep someone like Lackey from getting his body?

A Secret History of Memphis Hoodoo

Y’all, I’m not saying it’s been a strange year, but it’s been a strange year. This is the first book on non-poetry I’ve read since…Oh, I don’t know. Months. It’s been months.

But diving in to Tony Kail’s A Secret History of Memphis Hoodoo was a good way to break my losing streak.

I enjoyed it a lot, both because I learned some stuff I didn’t know and I had quibbles with the stuff I did know. Like, I don’t think Kail is wrong; I’d just like to argue with him about stuff anyway–that kind of quibbling. Some stretches I thought he was making that I wouldn’t have made–like bringing the old Robert Johnson bullshit into it.

I think if you don’t know anything about hoodoo and are curious about it and Memphis’s role, this is a fantastic introduction. I think if you know some stuff about hoodoo, you’re going to be a little frustrated. His history of Memphis factories involved in the production of hoodoo is great, but I wish there’d been more about how hoodoo ideas were transmitted in the days before the internet. His work on the Spiritual churches and their conventions is a great example of showing how people come together and exchange ideas.

I wanted to know if we have any guesses about how that transpired in the 19th century. I mean, some of it is really mysterious. We don’t know for sure what the little metal hands mean, though we find them at the Hermitage and outside of Memphis. They certainly look manufactured and I wonder if anyone’s ever tried to track down where. I assume they have, but I don’t know. And how did they get into the slave economy as far apart as Nashville and Memphis? Is there someone we can track? Or a slave-trading pattern we can contemplate?

It does seem obvious that Memphis conjure is informed by New Orleans conjure (and possibly visa versa) but I would have liked some informed guesses as to how that worked, too. Were steamboat workers bringing this stuff up and down the river? Like what was the mechanism for refreshing standard beliefs?

The same goes for the idea that hoodoo practices and Native American practices greatly overlap. How would this have happened? Are we talking that black people, when they were kidnapped by Indians, were being taught traditional healing methods? Are we saying that there were enough communities where black and Indians lived freely together that there could be these information exchanges?

I’m not trying to insinuate that I doubt these things. I don’t. These are things that obviously happened, but that I’m still not clear on how. I mean, before 1865, it was very hard for most black people to travel very far in the South. And Memphis and New Orleans are very far apart. Also, after Jackson, the South wasn’t brimming with Native Americans.

So, how were these connections being made?

I guess what I’m saying is that this book is very, very good for what it is, but also that I was hoping for something a little more than just an introduction.


Next weekend, I’m giving a presentation about how I go digging for interesting history stuff. So, I spent this weekend looking for interesting history stuff. Basically, I was trying to figure out if I could figure out where Bud Rogan was buried.

In order to do that, I ended up learning a lot about his family and some about the other black Rogans in Sumner county who came off the Rogan plantation. All of slave-owner Francis Rogan’s white sons fought for the Confederacy. One died. In 1860, Francis had 75 slaves. Seven Rogans joined the Union army. A tenth of his captives. One of them also died.

A couple of Rogans played professional baseball back in the day, men whose families trace back to the Rogan plantation.

And I learned that anywhere Titus Rogan–Bud’s uncle–was there was going to be a Baptist church. The Rogans, in general, seemed to be very religious and even now there are a number of Rogans in the ministry, but Titus, man, you found him in the census, you found a church with active Rogan support nearby.

The other thing that I found really amazing is that the Rogans formed a community out there in rural Sumner County that was bigger than the plantation, Rogana. Cragfont, the Winchester home, was south of Rogana. The Parkers were east of Rogana and a branch of the Franklins were west (hilarious trivia–these Franklins had a kid with the middle name of Armfield and another kid named Nathan Bedford Franklin, because, I guess, why not embrace the family business whole-heartedly?).

And when you look at records for the Rogans, what names come up? Parker, Winchester, Franklin. These families, from adjoining plantations, moved together and built communities together after slavery. A Rogan who knows a Parker today has a friendship based on two hundred years of relationships.

When you consider how much time and energy enslavers devoted to severing those kinds of ties, it’s really incredible. And it’s something I’d like to know more about.

Anyway, here’s a church I found that sprung up near a road Titus Rogan lived on. The congregation goes back to 1865, supposedly. I can’t speak for this building, but it’s obviously pretty old.

What to Say?

Last week, little kids died coming home from school on a bus whose the parents of those children had been complaining about since practically the beginning of the year. Last night, Gatlinburg burned. We’re waiting to hear if anyone has died. It seems impossible that everyone could have survived. The video has been so scary.

And it feels like there’s a rush to say something, to know what to say, and I don’t. It’s horrific. It’s just horrific.


Y’all,  I want to write something about the Orlando shooting(s), but I just can’t. We choose this. This is our acceptable reality.

It makes me sick.

Anyway, I realized, I know of three instances where a fake document was passed off as real and it directly affects how we see Tennessee (or saw it)–that first book about the Mystic clan was not true. People died over it anyway. Ingram’s Bell Witch book. And John Cotten’s diary.

Isn’t that weird? I wonder how common it is for states to have an ongoing generation of an alternative history we must know is contrary to the facts, but we still accept parts of the false history as true facts?

I wonder if anyone studies this? I mean, it must happen in the West a lot, with dimestore novels about real people leaking into the factual understandings of their real lives, right?

Strange Hoax

I have a desire to map out exactly where the fort was downtown. It seems like it should be easy enough to find out, but I guess because it was, you know, the large wooden structure in the center of town, very few people were very specific about where it was.

So, I was going through old journal articles trying to find if someone had said where it was and I found an excerpt from the diary of John Cotten, who came to Nashville with the Donelsons, in which he recounted the Battle of the Bluffs, said some snarky things about dogs, and described the fort.

The diary entries I read were extraordinary. If you don’t feel sick to your stomach for the men lured out of the fort, alarmed at the violent ways people were killing each other, and then heartbroken for the dead child, I just don’t even know what to say to you.

I was tweeting some of the best passages and then wondering, why has no one published this diary? But there’s a kind of…not red flag…but light pink flag in the fact that he’s supposedly writing this diary in the midst of battle. Long, elegant passages describing the set-up of the fort that were written just hours after dude almost died.

I remember 9/11 and I remember people’s impulses to write about it. So, I talked myself into believing that it was possible.

But, for me, as a history buff, one of the hardest things about reading primary sources is that once you get back before 1850, the language is really weird and stilted. It’s hard to make sense of what’s going on both because the handwriting can be really hard to make sense of and, just, the idioms are weird. The sentence structure is weird. The word choices they make are weird.

It can be really hard, until you get used to a person’s writing style, to feel any emotional connection to what he’s writing.

Think of it this way. Let’s take Shakespeare. And it’s not quite the same thing, because he’s writing verse, but it’s a good enough illustration.

You read, “To be, or not to be–that is the question: / Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles / And by opposing end them.” for the first time and it’s a rare person among us who’s like “Damn, man, that’s heartbreaking.”

And trust me. In five hundred years, if someone reads “Should I just fucking kill myself? Is there any honor in suffering or should I refuse to suffer and die instead?” they’re also not going to immediately feel that connected to it, because the language, the idioms, aren’t going to make immediate sense to them.

There’s got to be a moment of…I guess translation…not quite translation, but something like that, where you look at these words you know put together in these strange ways and you try to understand the feeling behind them.

It’s doable. And worth your while. Somehow who reads a lot of Shakespeare, who has gotten used to how he writes, I’m sure, even now, when they read “to be or not to be” above there, they got a little hitch in their emotions, because, damn it’s really powerful.

But there was no real gap between what Mr. Cotten wrote and the emotions that I felt about it. I didn’t have to get used to his voice or figure out his stilted language. And my whole drive home that bugged me. (If you read up on jokes, this phenomenon is even more acute. Things that were funny to someone in 1820 are not only not funny to us, it often doesn’t occur to us that they’re supposed to be funny.)

And then I got home and did some research and everyone who knows much about the Cotten diary is convinced it’s fake. I agree. Their arguments are really, really convincing.

But it’s also a deeply moving piece of writing. And I wonder why you’d write it and then try to scam the 50 people in the nation who would give two shits about John Cotten into believing that it’s real instead of writing a novel.

I’m really curious about who might have written it. I wonder if it’s from the same era as Ingram’s Bell Witch book and, if so, I wonder what it means that Tennessee spits out these alternative histories?

Fort Blount

The Butcher ended up being home yesterday unexpectedly so, even though I had work I was supposed to be doing, we loaded the dog in the car and drove over to Fort Blount, which does not exist any more. But we took the old western road in part to get there, past ancient houses and up and down milder hills than surrounded us. We saw (and barked at like it was our only job in the world) deer, turkeys, cows, goats, trucks, tractors, and circling hawks.

It was marvelous.

But when we got out to the fort, there was NOTHING. Not a marker, not a fence, not even a sign warning you that you were headed toward a dead end. We both had to pee. The Butcher peed on a poached deer carcass. I peed at the front of the car, using the bumper as leverage. I still managed to splash on my pants.

That left me with mixed feelings. But at least it was down low on the legs, so I didn’t have to sit in it on the way home.

The Durham Situation

I’m talking about this. I’m surprised and confused that he doesn’t already have a lawyer advising him on this stuff. That seems like a strange misstep unless he doesn’t have the money. If he doesn’t have the money, that would suggest someone, somewhere, has turned that spigot off.

But I think he’s right to refuse to turn over his personal computer and personal accounts to the state. They shouldn’t just be able to go digging through everything in his life. They should have to state in a warrant what they’re looking for and get a judge to approve it.

And…and here’s where I feel yucky because I really dislike Durham and I really, truly get why women at Legislative Plaza don’t come forward… but I don’t think a judge should grant that warrant.

I mean, in this regard, Durham is right. There’s no accuser. The State shouldn’t be able to upend your whole life, looking through all your personal belongings, without there being either someone who says “I, yes, me, with this name, saw him doing this specific thing to that person, who also has a name” or someone who says “He did this thing to me” or someone who says “I found this evidence that this thing had happened.”

So, if there’s a witness who saw him sexually harassing someone, fine. If there’s someone who’s saying she sexually harassed him, fine. If someone has some evidence in hand that makes the AG think sexual harassment happened, fine. Give me a victim, a witness, or some proof. Otherwise, no, you can’t go poking around looking for something just because everyone hates him.

I think we should be much more supportive of victims of sexualized violence. I think my track record speaks for itself.

But, at some point, someone has to come forward. And, to me, the idea that grown women just can’t and therefore we should investigate without any complaintant seems like it leads to very bad places.

I mean, that’s the thing that fucking sucks. A bad thing happens to you and, in order to make sure it stops, more bad shit happens.

But I don’t see how we have a justice system that respects the rights of the accused without requiring there to be, you know, an accuser.

The Dark Things We Won’t Admit

As I’ve been thinking about Elias Napier, I’ve had a really hard time with the fact that he kept his grandchildren enslaved. I don’t know why, out of everything I’ve read, that’s just the place I can’t get to, but that’s the place I can’t get to. Your own grandchildren.

I thought a lot about that this weekend.

I think one of the things that makes it hard to understand slavery is that we start from a position of slavery being evil and then the humps we have to overcome are things like “How could these people who I love do this evil thing?” and then we get stuck with these untrue but heartfelt beliefs that it wasn’t really that bad or that our slave-owning ancestors were the good ones or that they just didn’t know better. And all of those things are, sadly, demonstrably untrue.

Here’s the truth, though: slavery was awesome for the enslavers. That’s why it persisted, even flourished. That’s why men who didn’t own slaves fought for the right to own slaves.

Once we admit that owning people was awesome, we can start being honest about all the corrupting ways it was. All the labor around the house you didn’t have to do. All the labor on the farm you didn’t have to do. All the “sex” (what we would call rape) you could have or watch others having.

I mean, just think about all the darker impulses we have. Say you have a fourteen year old at your house who refuses to do the dishes. You may feel an impulse to beat the shit out of her, but you do not, because it’s wrong. But let’s be honest, in the moment, it would feel good to smack her around. Later, yes, you might feel terrible. But in the moment?

Now think of all the people who watch sports and, when the athletes express displeasure, complain because “They knew what they were getting into” or “look at how much money they make” as if there’s some level of recompense that makes watching someone’s bodily destruction your right.

Is the pleasure of the slaver really that foreign to us?

Your enslaved child will never grow up and move away. No matter how old he or she gets, they have to follow your guidance. Your enslaved grandchildren can never be too busy for you. Your enslaved family has to love you (or fake it so well you can ignore that it’s fake) in ways your free family doesn’t.

We’re supposed to understand Elias as generous or good for freeing his family at his death, but the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that the value they had for him was so private, so personal, that he could not believe they retained that value after his death. Setting them free in a way kept them his and his alone. No one else could have them like he did.


The main problem with ever writing a comprehensive (or hell just an adequate) history of early Nashville is that there’s so much information you need that you don’t know you need until you stumble across it.

Like, for instance, we know that De Charleville was an earlier French fur trapper and that Demonbreun kind of inherited his spot. But scholars of fur trading and Native American history know that De Charleville was embedded in with the Shawnee.

So…the Shawnee had to have some settlement here.

(Speaking of settlements, as I was looking at the Brown narrative more closely, I noticed that he said that when he was kidnapped, Running Water Town had only existed for two years–that’s why the cane was still so thick in the area. Running Water Town is considered a major and important Chickamauga village. If Brown’s right, considering that he was captured in 1788 and then guided the Nickajack expedition that wiped Running Water Town off the face of the planet in 1794, that town existed for less than a decade. But no one questions whether Running Water Town was a permanent settlement. So, is it just that we don’t know the names of what camps might have been here? Is that why we don’t count them? What would have made a camp less permanent than Running Water Town? During the winter, folks moved out of Running Water Town and lived in Crow Town. I guess I just don’t understand how we’re differentiating between a camp and a town. A camp would seem less permanent but we know people returned to the same camps year after year. So… I don’t know. I still suspect this is a smoke screen behind which we claim no Native Americans lived here.)

Or take the fact that Ramsey (who provides the framework for Brown’s account) says that Brown’s mom was freed with help from the Durant woman whose husband was a French trader, who helped Brown’s mom get in McGillivray, the head Creek dude.

I had been thinking that this must be Elizabeth Durard (nee either Bennett or Hensley) because who the fuck else could it be?

Oh, well, again, historians of the fur trade and Native American life know this. It’s Sophia Durant–McGilliray’s sister. Her husband was a French trader–some say from South Carolina, but the kinds of financial settlements he got from the U.S. government show that he was 1/2 Creek, so, not an Irishman who came in through Charleston.

But let that sink in. There were French fur traders embedded with the Creek.

Some sources do say that Joseph Durard was a “half-breed.” I had discounted them. I’m now moving that back into “hmm” territory. I still think it’s much more likely that Joseph Durard is Joseph Deraque, who was in Indiana with Demonbreun. But I can’t discount the fact that Joseph was able to easily travel through Creek territory with Richard Finnelson. Did he have family there?

A Secret You Don’t Know How to Hear

Franklin Lodg

When it was built, this was the tallest building west of the Appalachians. It’s the Masonic Lodge down in Franklin.

I really enjoy history. I think I even enjoy learning about the bad parts. But when I look at this building, I see a statement of fact I don’t know how to understand. This is the past saying something I don’t know how to hear.

I find that frightening, a little bit.

I don’t know what I want to say about this exactly, except that, I feel like, if you stared at it long enough, you would know something about American history you maybe didn’t want to know.

That building, each brick crafted by hand by people who couldn’t decline the work. Sent up a death-fall distance into the air to stack those bricks so that men could meet in secret and pretend they knew the mysteries of the world and then so that men could meet and send the Chickasaw on their death march.

I always feel weird about defending Andrew Jackson, but I have come to respect that Jackson knew what it would take to get the country white America wanted and that he didn’t gloss over or coddle or reconfigure or whatever that it took enslaving people and committing genocide. I also find myself respecting that he was willing to stand here in this building and be the enemy of the Chickasaw people to their faces.

There’s a kind of bluntness in Jackson’s person and actions that is alarming and unfamiliar. But I find myself growing more to respect that he did openly and let the chips fall where they may instead of, as we do now, doing it secretly and pretending it’s fine.

Sumner County

And after all that, I forgot to tell you guys how my trip to Sumner County went. It was excellent. I have a few pictures.

Did I tell you I made a map? I made a map. I hope that link works.

The locations aren’t exact, exact, but they’ll give you a good idea of where things are. I relied heavily on the 1878 map of Sumner County at the LOC and a lot on where various books approximated things.



Franklin Stuff

I’m gearing up for two trips to Sumner County. The first one I’m taking next week, to have my awesome history buff friend drive me around while I look at graves and try to suss out which houses are still standing.

The second I’m taking in January when a historian who’s working on a book on Isaac Franklin comes up here to see what there is to see.

I’ve been thinking about the kinds of things I want to impress upon him, what I think are the most important overview things he might need to know about Isaac Franklin and his family.

One, which is small, is that Isaac Franklin’s mom was a Lauderdale. One of her brothers is who Fort Lauderdale, Florida, is named after. The other brother, who has counties named after him, died at the Battle of New Orleans, yes, under Jackson.

Two, which is also small, is that, back in the day, when there were a ton of ferries, the Hermitage was roughly halfway between Gallatin and Nashville.

Three is that the Cages and the Douglasses were in-laws before they came to Sumner County. So, the Cages and the Douglasses were the same family and then, when they got here and lived next to the Franklins, the Franklins substantially intermarried into that extended family.

What this means then, is that, if you look at a map of Sumner County and you find where Saundersville Road now turns sharply to the north and you draw a line at that point from the river up to Long Hollow Pike, then you come east to where 386 intersects 109 and come south to the river, you have the rough boundaries of the land controlled by this family/families in the late 1700s/early 1800s (and beyond that, too). By my rough estimate, 30 square miles, almost 20,000 acres. Pretty much everything between Gallatin and Hendersonville.

Four, and most interesting to me, but maybe not that historically important, is that it seems like all houses in this clan that the kids could get to, the kids were welcome at.  All adults seemed to some greater or lesser degree to oversee the well-being of all the children in the Bend.

It makes Franklin’s desire to turn Fairvue into a school a little touching to me to know that. He wanted his house to continue, after his death, to be a place open and welcoming and useful to (male, white) children.

It also makes me wonder more about Franklin remaining unmarried for so long. I wonder if a woman he loved, someone he grew up with, sits in his family tree married to someone else.

Square Miles to Acres

What we know is that Eliza Allen’s father owned 800 acres three miles south of Gallatin on a bluff. Locals tell us that the house was off of what is now Steam Plant Road.

I just now measured. If they owned 800 acres, they owned most of Odom’s Bend.

I also have been thinking about the fact that, when the Franklin family slaves were emancipated, they all went over to Peach Valley Road to live. I’m starting to suspect–if Isaac Franklin indeed had 1000 acres and he grew enough food on that rocky land to supply the Louisiana farms, which means he must have had plenty of bottom land–that the Franklin family slaves didn’t “go” anywhere. I think they just settled where the field cabins had been.

I’m Starting to Get a Feeling

So, the Franklins were up there in what is now Sumner County since white people started settling there. As were the Douglasses. These are old, old families. As were the McKains and the Cages. The Douglasses married into the McKains and the Cages and the Franklins married into the McKains and the Cages.

The Franklins and the Douglasses, though, did more than just intermarry. They REALLY intermarried, generation after generation, to the point where I don’t think that you can really talk about the Franklins and the Douglasses, but it’s perhaps better to think of them as the Franklin/Douglass clan.

One way that this history is shaped that I don’t have a good sense of is who all served with Jackson during the War of 1812. That seems to be a structure in the background of this history that would help to make sense of it.

But I’m starting to get a feeling there’s another structure semi-related to Jackson in the background.

Okay, so keep in mind that Jackson has a kind of faction–him, Sam Houston, James K. “Young Hickory” Polk, Judge John Overton, and, perhaps, the Winchester dude who founded Memphis with him and Overton (I haven’t found any evidence of this, but I mention him only because he’s from Sumner County).

And even though I would say that the Franklin/Douglass clan was not politically opposed to the Jackson faction, I’m starting to get a feel that they may have been socially opposed.

There are two questions a person must ask after looking long enough at the Franklin/Douglas clan. 1. Why was Eliza Allen allowed to make such a good second marriage? By the time she married Dr. Elmore Douglass, her parents were dead and she was a divorcee at the heart of a huge political scandal. Why does she get to marry a doctor from one of the oldest families in the area? 2. Why does Isaac Franklin marry Adelicia Hayes? He’s in his 40s. He has a palace of debauchery. And he has a ton of nieces and nephews he’s made rich–either by hooking the nephews up in the family business or by marrying the nieces off to his business partner.

But Eliza Allen ran into trouble with the Jackson faction. Adelicia Hayes’ brother was killed by Polk’s brother. Having the Allen family tied into your clan gives you a lot of banking money and politicians on your side (and note that at least a few Franklins went into banking after slave trading) and it gives you sympathetic folks all up river.

The Hayes family gets you in with them and the McGavocks. Adding to your influence with the McGavocks, we know that John Overton’s wife was first married to Andrew Jackson’s doctor, May, who’s first name is not coming to my mind. She liked Jackson enough at first to name one of her sons with May “Andrew Jackson May.” But, the family story is that, after the Dickinson duel, after Jackson told May to lie to Dickinson as he died, Mrs. May came to loathe him. And she loathed him through her marriage to John Overton. Her kids with Overton also married into the McGavocks.

I don’t know what to make of it, but I feel like there’s the shape of something there.

The Franklins and Justice

Two things.

  1. When you read about the grave, immeasurable evil Isaac Franklin did, you can’t help but hope that there’s some measure of justice. That, maybe, he was personally miserable. And, frankly, if Isaac Franklin wasn’t personally miserable, then you know he was a psychopath, because so many, so very, very many people in his family died and died and died and died. But it doesn’t feel even.
  2. One thing my kind driver pointed out as we drove around the Gallatin outskirts is that most people out there have horse farms because there’s not a lot of top soil. Thin layer and then rock. Driving around, you can see all the rock just poking through the grass. If you had a 1000 acres of land for actual farming, you needed about a hundred slaves to work the farm. I just don’t see how Fairvue had that many acres of farm land. They could have farmed in the creek bottoms and the river bottom, but that wasn’t a thousand acres. So what was he doing with all the slaves he kept at Fairvue?

The Douglass Family

I become convinced, the more I study Tennessee history, that there’s some underlying structure that I’m just not aware of, because I’m not from here and the names that mean something to me are the names that end up in history books. They are, however, not always the most important names to understanding the shape of history.

Take Colonel Edward Douglass, who died in Cage’s Bend, up near Gallatin, in 1795. He had a ton of children: John Douglass, William Douglass, Edward Douglass, Elmore Douglass, Elizabeth Douglass, Ezekiel Douglass, Sarah Douglass, James Douglass, and Reuben Douglass.

Edward’s son, Elmore, married Eliza Allen.

James’s daughter, Louisa, married George Allen, Eliza’s brother.

Reuben Douglass’s daughter, Evelina, was married to William Franklin, Isaac Franklin’s brother.

Reuben Douglass’s granddaughter, Henrietta Watkins (her mom was Sophia Douglass) married Albert Franklin, another brother of Isaac Franklin.

Eliza Allen and Adelicia Acklen would both have been down in that bend at the same time. They were married into intermarried families. How could they not have known each other?




Little Sister Death

I read William Gay’s Little Sister Death. It’s not a book I’d recommend to non-writers. It’s not a complete book. It’s not even a complete manuscript. Weirdly, there’s nothing in the book to let you know that it’s a partial, rough draft, so I’m sure if you buy the book thinking that you’re going to get Gay’s take on the Bell Witch, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.

It’s this incomplete draft and his essay on the Bell Witch which, I think, first appeared in the Oxford American.

If you are a writer, though, I highly, highly recommend this book. Who ever gets to see what a genius is like at this early stage in a book’s life? Here you see him toying with what characters might be important, what conceits he might want to employ–toward the middle of the book, the house itself starts to sleep and awake, but then it stops and I’d be so curious to know if he thought that was working (I did) or if he would have cut that from the final version–what kinds of imagery and symbolism might be important. It’s also fun to watch him clearly toying around with things that horror writers did that he liked. It’s amazing to see how strong and beautiful his prose already is, that early in the process.

It’s a real gift.

I’m bummed we’re never going to get to see his final version.

I’m also bummed because his article on the Bell Witch is good and has a lot of information that would seem to be substantiatable. The Saturday Evening Post wrote a story about the Bell Witch in 1849. Betsy Bell sued them over it. Local papers regularly covered the story as it was happening and shortly after. I got into the archives of the Post. I couldn’t find a story in 1849. I ran a search through the Post through the whole 19th century. Nothing. I ran searches through all of Proquest’s historical newspapers. Nothing.

I could have missed things.

But I have to tell you, I think that story didn’t exist until Ingram’s book in the 1880s.


I wrote a little bit about John Murrell’s thumb for Pith.

Tomorrow I have many feelings about the Bell Witch, so it’s basically a week of me pooping on Nashville’s most beloved legends.

But here’s the thing I am becoming more convinced of. Oftentimes the legend of something obscures or erases a much more interesting bunch of facts. See Robert Johnson and the legend of him selling his soul to the Devil for very minor regional talent vs. Robert Johnson traveling the country and having a bunch of friends and working really hard to develop his talent.

Or the Mystic Clan, which obscures the bizarre summer of 1835.

As for the Bell Witch…

While I am a firm believer in some kinds of psychic phenomenon (which I am convinced have a scientific explanation we just haven’t discovered yet)–like your mom having a sudden feeling that you’re in trouble or the kinds of conversations the Butcher and I have where something at work can remind me of something that happened twenty-five years ago and I come home and ask “Hey, do you remember that guy with the green shirt who did that weird thing?” and he’ll know exactly which guy in a green shirt I’m talking about and what the weird thing was.–I think most psychics are scam artists. Because I think being psychic is like having a gut feeling or a moment of intuition. You can’t make it happen and it’s not some constant state of being on.

Someone who can make it happen all the time is cheating.

And when you’re cheating to accuse dead people of molesting a girl? That really pisses me off.

Here’s the thing that I didn’t get into at Pith, mostly because I didn’t feel on as firm a footing scholarship-wise as I did about my point about the story treating this spirit the way Victorians would have treated and understood the spirit and not like people in the 1810s and 20s would have, the Red River community was very small and people’s windows were open for a great portion of the year. If Betsy Bell was being molested, there’s a good chance people would have known. Not a perfect chance but a good chance. If Betsy Bell’s molestation had somehow led to the Bell Witch phenomenon, people would have made that connection back then.

If Betsy Bell had been the true focus of a poltergeist, during that time, it would have made her very hard to marry off. If Betsy Bell had been molested and people knew about it, it would have been practically impossible to marry her off. Public knowledge of molestation ruined women’s lives. If Betsy Bell had a poltergeist who told secrets (which this one supposedly did) and was molested (and people knew about it, which it seems likely they would have, if the first one were true), she could not have gotten married.

The fact that Betsy Bell married tells me that the story as we know it, as well as the story as this psychic is trying to sell books on, is not true.

It pisses me off, both at the level of accusing people of a horrendous crime with nothing more than the word of a psychic, and at the level of utterly misunderstanding how that accusation would have ruined Betsy Bell’s life so utterly and completely.

As hard as it is for victims these days to come forward, there’s been such a profound shift in how we understand this crime that it’s almost impossible to wrap our heads around.

I mean, not to be flip, but I’d like to hear some explanation for how Betsy Bell, if she was molested, was able to, back in her own day, keep this mostly secret and not see herself as fallen and ruined, let alone how she’s now come to the conclusion that she’s fine, it’s the fuckers who molested her who are the problem.

That’s something I, as a 21st century woman, firmly believe. But I find it hard to believe an early 19th century woman from a religious home on the frontier would have not experienced this as something profoundly shameful and ruinous that she had caused to happen to herself.

I don’t know. It just feels like making light of how terrible that would have been for Betsy, had it happened, how profoundly different her life would have gone, if it was true and enough people knew about it for it to make its way down to us somehow.

Nashville Ghosts, Big and Small

Last night, the little old ladies in my audience told me two ghost stories. One was about a woman whose son died in World War I–Bobby. He had gone to Vanderbilt, before dying in the war, and she became convinced that he was possessing or being reincarnated into a squirrel on Vanderbilt’s campus. So, she would come to campus all dressed in black and call out “Bobby, Bobby!” until a squirrel came up to her and she would know that was her son. She would then feed him and hang out with him. And then she died, but, of course, this didn’t stop her behavior. A couple of the women swore they’d seen her in the 40s and 50s on campus.

I love this story both because of the possessed squirrels, which, I’m sorry, is just awesome and because the hauntings double up. She is haunted and then she haunts.

The second thing they told me about was the Bell Witch. But not any part of the story I’d ever heard before. Apparently the Bell Witch used to haunt the streetcar lines. The drivers would all the time see a dark haired woman riding to the end of the line, but when they stopped at the end of the line, she’d vanish.

I have many feelings about the Bell Witch and the story of what happened in Adams has been debunked to my satisfaction. (In short, I think it’s clear that the first book about it was a piece of fiction kind of in line with what I do–taking real historical figures and making them legendary. Some clues to this effect are that Andrew Jackson never mentions traveling to the area or confronting the witch and, most importantly, that the whole way the witch works is far more Victorian than early Republic. In other words, the witch haunted like fictional Victorian ghosts haunt, not how people really understood the same phenomena before the Spiritualist movement. But that fiction was taken for fact and here we are.) But I’m growing more and more sure that debunking the story of the Bell Witch really misses what’s going on here.

Because, after all, why would the Bell Witch, a supernatural entity from Adams, a good hour north of Nashville, haunt the Nashville streetcars? Why would she appear in the mirrors of anyone who said “Bell Witch” three times in a dark mirror? Folks from Middle Tennessee don’t have “Bloody Mary,” they have “The Bell Witch.”

I think the hint is in the rise of the importance of the Bell Witch Cave. Pretty much any time you have people of European descent talking about a woman who lives hidden under the earth, they’re telling you, without knowing it, why the story has staying power.

The Bell Witch, I think, is, at least functionally, an American hidden folk. There are lots of hidden folks in European folklore. They’re not all the same. An elf is not a huldr is not a troll is not… and so on. But the very general idea that there’s someone to whom this land is important, who lives on it with you, and who’s responsible for the success or failure of your time on that land, who might steal your children, and who lives under or in the ground is wide-spread and old in European folklore.

There are theories, too, that most of the sky gods in European pantheons are actually the same god whose name got mangled as languages changed–Zeus is Ious Pietor is Jupiter is Tor is Tyr, etc. But their wives are not at all alike. Even in pantheons that we think of as being really closely linked, like the Greek and the Roman, Hera and Juno are different in really, really important ways. And Frigg is not much like either of them. The theory is that, much like the Catholic church came into an area and said, “Oh, those gods you’re worshiping? Those aren’t gods. They were just very holy people. They’re saints! Keep on worshiping them, just put your money in our collection plates now!” that the Indo-European sky god’s followers ingratiated him with local tribes by figuring out which local land spirit was beloved enough to function like a goddess-consort and then, in those communities, the sky god became her husband. A wandering Jovial (ha ha ha) dude with a local gal in each place he traveled for business.

In other words, the notion of a supernatural woman-ish land spirit who has a sacred cave and a set boundary of land she cares for and bad stuff she can get up to if you cross her is ancient. And since it can be talked about as if it’s a metaphor and not in conflict with Christianity, it’s the kind of folk belief that lingers.

I think that’s what the Bell Witch is doing for Middle Tennessee. True or not is almost beside the point. She is now the spirit of the place. The female energy we sense in the landscape.