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.

Three

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.

Discoveries

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.

Thumb

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.

Off to Memphis

I’m headed to Memphis, which seems a nice way to spend a day. I’m trying to arrange for some kind of adventure while also avoiding being stuck too much in the rain.

If you’re at the Mid South Book Festival, please be sure to say hello. I’ll be leaving shortly after lunch in order to get home before dark, as is my way, but I’ll be around all morning.

Charlotte

I drove out to Charlotte to see all their old buildings and I must say, I was kind of disappointed, though I wasn’t sure why. They have old buildings, but, if there was one from the early 1800s, I couldn’t find it, even though I’d been told there was one there.

Which is not to say that it’s not there, but just that I couldn’t find it.

A Little Bit of Everything

–Yesterday morning, that Dawes song came on the radio and I just sobbed the whole time it played.

–I saw a screenshot of the New York Times this morning that has the verdict in the Colorado theater mass shooting, a story about the ongoing investigation of the Charleston shooting, and then, of course, breaking news about the Chattanooga shooting. And somewhere, I guess, a guy sits in his room planning the next shooting. Round we go.

–We have these shootings so often that I feel kind of emotionally fried. But it broke my heart in a new way to watch on Twitter the people who knew these guys–the victims and the shooter–struggling with trying to understand how yesterday morning, these were just some guys they knew and liked and today they are gone and transmuted into symbols that prove something to someone somewhere who never knew them in the first place.

–I’m still having an ongoing, difficult conversation with my cousin and still feeling like I am utterly failing at it. I guess I get that we were told we had one kind of family and we, in fact, have another kind. But, I also guess that I feel like we aren’t going to ever actually be the kind of family we were told we had, so it makes me sad, to some extent, that we can’t be the kind of family we wanted so desperately to pretend like we were. But I’m also kind of relieved that most of us aren’t pretending anymore. And I don’t know if we can build a new kind of family or if people even want to.

It took me a long time to be okay with that, to decide that what would be the best way to love this mess of a family, is to have no expectations and to just take whatever good thing whoever can manage to do when they can.

I mean, maybe I’m not completely okay with that. But it’s what brings me peace and lets me stop being constantly hurt and confused.

But, what works for one doesn’t, I suppose, work for another.

Tennessee Marble

Southern Rambles is a great blog to find out about cool Tennessee things. Today, they’re taking about a history of Tennessee marble, which I didn’t even know was a thing. But this is cool how a rock quarried in East Tennessee by a small community of families influenced fireplaces and the state capitol across the state. I also didn’t realize there were houses made of marble. That’s awesome.

The Grave of the Tullahoma Witch

I went down to Tullahoma today to look for the grave of a supposed witch. Even knowing right where I was going and even having my phone yell at me when to make turns, it was still nearly impossible to find. And there were a ton of crows and it was really creepy. I parked, walked in, and even though it was totally empty and my view of the empty cemetery was completely unobstructed, I felt like someone was right behind me a couple of times. I took pictures of what I hope will turn out to be complete emptiness when I felt the most like someone had to be right there.

I found the “witch”‘s grave easily enough and I saw right away that this was a grave where people are still working magic. Someone had left flowers; people had left coins; there’s the kind of minor vandalism you expect from people when there’s something “magic” that they might take with them.

I was thrilled. I have been wanting to see a working grave in Tennessee since I got here. Everything that indicates that we could still have them is here–a long tradition of African American root workers/folk magicians, a long tradition of white granny medicine, the African-American hoodoo obsession with graveyards and graveyard dirt, the white folk tradition of using skulls and bones for medicine, and a tradition of fearsome witches (and fearsome witches never rest easy in the grave). So, it sure seemed like somewhere, someone must be going to the cemetery, calling on some dead person to help work the kind of magic that needs a magic worker on both sides of the veil, and leaving an offering either during or afterwards. Someone’s got to be doing the old school folk magic.

I looked and I looked, but I never did, before today, see it in Tennessee (I saw it in New Orleans at Marie Laveau’s grave, of course).

Just as an aside, it occurs to me that one reason they may be so hard to find is that we don’t have a lot of old time witches and our most famous one–the Bell Witch–well, there’s a huge taboo on revealing where her grave is. How huge a taboo? No one in Adams will tell you where it is–in my experience anyway. And even though the location is now on the internet, no pictures of the grave have surfaced as far as I can tell.

Anyway, here’s what I saw (or didn’t, as the case may be)

Lunch

I love going over to Two Boots for lunch and just observing people. I’m not sure why it’s the kind of place that makes people relax and be worth observing, but it’s really excellent.

I could really use time off, even if I can’t (yet) afford to go on a real vacation and I’m kind of thinking of taking a week and forcing myself to do a historical home and lunch people-observing every day. I think that would be good for the book. And, I think, if I committed to it and didn’t just say “Ugh, I’m going to sit at home on the couch because I’m lazy” I would enjoy it.

A Brief Thing About History

My feeling this week is that a lot of people in this country had thought they’d managed to stand in front of history as its caretakers, pointing people only to the things the caretakers wanted them to notice, and they called that “honoring the past.” And what they did not know is that a lot of people have been remembering a lot of things the caretakers thought they’d managed to erase.

“Knee-jerk.”

What you didn’t know is that knee’s been jerking for a hundred and fifty years. Often, at the end of a noose.

And we never forgot. Never, ever.

PC is putting a man who massacred Tennesseans in our state capitol because you don’t want to offend people who like him.

Jesus.

Don’t talk to me about knee-jerk PC reactions.

The Battle of Franklin

I wrote about it, in case you needed something to read today. I am still worried sick that I have the officers on the wrong sides. In general, I just don’t get war history. Generals, colonels, all that crap. I don’t even know what you call the people who fight in wars. I only recently learned they’re not all soldiers.

But I want to learn to understand this shit, too, because it matters.