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Late in the year 1917, a road construction crew was widening a stretch of upper roadway that wound around a river bluff in Bradley County, Tennessee. Not far from Charleston, at a place where two dirt toads intersected each other to make a rough crossroads, they made a strange and macabre find. Turning over some earth in the center of the road, a workman uncovered the petrified body of an adult woman who had been buried many years before. The body appeared partially mummified by the minerals in the ground, which had preserved it to a reasonable degree. But there was something that unsettled the workmen: Petrified along with her body was a stake that had been forcibly driven through her chest and heart. This was clearly no ordinary burial. Stooping down, one of the crew members examined the stake and gave a gasp of amazement. It was certainly unusual—in fact, it was not a stake at all, but a bottom-leg support from an exceptionally handsome chair! Such a chair could have been the centerpiece of one of the finest homes in Chattanooga. So what was it doing piercing the chest of an unknown woman buried on a dirt road in remote Bradley County? It was a mystery indeed, but the chair leg was so distinctive that it yielded some of its own answers—down to the name of the men who had made it.
In early Colonial America, handmade chairs were always in great demand and the person who could make a fine seat was never short of work. In many rural communities, the chair had gradually become the staple of the craft business. Indeed, a good chair was the very center of the social world in many rural areas—it was the seat on which a mother nursed her young child; where women mended clothes in the lamplight; where the farmers and mountaineers rested at the end of the day; where neighbors exchanged gossip or ideas, and from which country patriarchs dispensed hard-won wisdom to their descendants. And because it held such a central place in the household, each chair had to look good. Arguably, the manufacture of such seats was both an important trade and a specialized art form. By the time that Allen Eaton published his Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands in 1937, southern and eastern Tennessee had boasted a proud history of rural chair-making for more than a century. Of special note in Eaton's book was Mary Ownby of Gatlinburg, who crafted her own chairs from start to finish. She selected a tree that she cut herself, splitting the wood and turning the posts by hand. Mary even fashioned her own tools—mainly chisels—to groove and decorate the chair, adding her own distinctive ornamentation to each one. She was certainly at the pinnacle of her craft, but she was not the only one.
The real antiques in the world of American chairs—those that would have been used by the early Tennessee settlers—were crafted by two brothers, Eli and Jacob Odom, in the high mountains near Shell Creek in Carter County. Their speciality was a distinctive slat-backed seat, beloved of the southern mountaineers, with shaved rear posts, curved slightly inward. It was known in the mountains as a "mule-eared chair," and was distinctive from the manufactured Hitchcock chairs that were in circulation at the time.
They arrived in Shell Creek around 1806 and set up their chairworks in a small cabin near the Creek. Because of their often distinctive importance in the community, chairs were not only sitting items in those backwoods days, they were used for trading as well. A handsome chair could be traded against something else, and it's thought that the brothers received such things as salt, sugar, molasses, meat, and coffee in return for their work. They created chairs of exceptional quality with support-posts made out of undried green maple and rounded struts cut from mountain hickory. As the maple dried, it shrank, holding the rounds firmly in place to create tighter joints. Using chisels and awls, the brothers then cut the intricate decorative pattern work that would come to characterize their chairs.
By the 1840s, their work was so famous that it was looked for everywhere in Tennessee. These were good times for the state, as more and more settlers poured in and a new wealth began to rise within some of the larger towns. New houses were starting to appear in places such as Chattanooga, many with sitting parlors, which required furnishing in a unique and decorative style. Hotels, too, were flourishing, many with long front porches where guests could sit. A good number of establishments boasted mule-eared chairs from the high mountains near Shell Creek. In time, the gentry of Charleston, taken by the "rustic charm" of the mountain chairs, began to acquire them as fashion items of furniture for their own homes. Wagonloads of slat-backed chairs were soon driven east from Carter County to Tusculum and Kingsport in order to grace the fine abodes of the new southern wealth.
But it was not only the gentry who acquired the Odom chairs. In many mountain cabins, they became the center of the household, placed in front of the stove where the mountaineers could sit, rest, and chat about the day's events. Such people didn't pay for the chairs in the way the rich folks did—this is where the bartering and trading previously mentioned comes into play.
So, as the workman knelt over the body on the side of a lonely dirt road, his eyes widened in astonishment as he recognized the pattern work of Eli and Jacob Odom on the chair leg. And what about the female corpse that it pinned down? Maybe one or two of the road crew, all local men, could at least hazard a guess. And it's here that we must delve into the murky and uncertain world of rural folklore and supposition.
It's difficult to say who the woman was; although the folklore of Charleston is littered with references to her, no mention is made of her actual name. She is usually referred to as "the woman from Hiwassee" or "the witch lady," often in a disparaging tone. Perhaps this serious omission stems from the face that, among mountain folks, as in many other cultures, a given name was a powerful thing. Speaking a person's name in a certain way could sometimes give the speaker a degree of control over the person, but in other cases, it could just as easily draw the unwelcome attentions of that particular person. Maybe the witch-woman was thought to be so powerful that even speaking her name would bring her down upon the speaker, and this resulted in the name being lost.
There are vague stories of her appearance and they are certainly not the most flattering. Descriptions speak of a fairly elderly lady with darkish skin as dry as that of a snake and a mouth as foul as a muddy hollow. She kept to herself up in her lonely cabin and seldom ventured to Charleston except to buy meager supplies. Birds refused to nest in the trees around her door and no dog would come near her. There are those who say that she never washed and others who say that she was a little lame. These may have been no more than stereotypes of a witch figure, but nevertheless everybody agreed that she had fearsome powers.
Her knowledge of natural things was reputedly formidable. She was, in the common parlance, a "yarb lady" who prepared poisons and potions from the plants that she found on the mountainside around her home. She made cures for various ailments, but with the darker side of her knowledge, she concocted deadly philtres and love potions, such as a medicine that could strike a man blind for life or could cause an unwilling girl to lose her inhibitions. The witchy woman was feared, but there was a certain allure about her powers. It was said that she could make men wealthy or successful and a woman alluring, simply by the use of certain herbs and incantations. So although they shunned her by day, folks secretly made their way up to the cabin on the ridge above the Hiwassee to buy favors or to have a curse issued against their enemies.
However, it was widely believed that the woman had far greater powers than simple herbs and potions. It was believed that she went about the countryside in the guise of a crow or a black cat, spying on her neighbors, learning their secrets, and creating mischief for them. And, it was whispered, drinking their blood. There were rumors all around Charleston and beyond that she was some sort of vampire and that she attacked men while they slept. Some said that they had witnessed her take the form of a great black bird that flapped away through the darkness, seeking victims. These were people who had crossed or mocked her or who had turned her away when she occasionally came begging. It was also said that she came in the form of a great black rat, which would often attack sleeping children in their cradles.
Moreover, some of the charms and potions that she used involved human blood, particularly menstrual blood. This was influenced by old beliefs that such blood was highly potent in a supernatural sense (it was believed to be the foundation of life itself) and therefore of immense use for Black Magic purposes. The idea of blood, used in hideous charms, invariably linked the woman to the idea of vampirism in the popular mind.
However, there have been those who have said that there is no evidence for the woman's alleged vampirism at all. The late Frank G. Trewhitt (who had family connections to the land on which the body was found), wrote the following in the Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin: "The land on which the body was found belonged to my great-grandfather and was passed to his sons. If they ever had heard any vampire tales hereabouts, I would have been told." Though today, stories about her blood-drinking still persist around Charleston folklore circles.
Whether or not the woman was a vampire, the body was found in a remote place, impaled with a piece from a chair made by the Odom brothers, so how did she die? The most common story is that a disease epidemic spread through Charleston, carrying away both young and old. Such epidemics were common in many American cities and towns during the early-to-mid 1800s, but this one seems to have been especially virulent. This was a time before significant medical advances, and the origins of such illnesses—unsanitary living conditions, poor diet, and bad housekeeping practices—were unknown. Besides drinking blood and leeching human energy, vampires were strongly associated with plague and disease, and as the sickness took hold, the unsettled population looked around for somebody to blame. Who better than the strange woman on the bluff above the Hiawassee, rumored to be a vampire? She had hexed the neighborhood with her witchy ways, and for this she needed to be punished. Only then would the disease that afflicted the countryside come to an end.
Tradition says that a mob made their way to the cabin and dragged the woman from it, intending to set it on fire. Until the body was found, there was no record as to what had befallen her. It is interesting that when uncovered, she was buried facedown with the chair leg protruding from her chest. In some parts of Eastern Europe, this was the recognized way of burying a vampire and preventing the creature from ever finding its way out of the grave and menacing the world of the living, should the stake ever be withdrawn. If it clawed blindly in front of it, then it would only succeed in digging itself deeper into the earth. Vampires were also buried at a place where roads crossed, so that if by any chance it did manage to break free, it would become confused by the roads running off in different directions and it would not know which way to turn. And what better place to bury such a creature than in an earthen road where passing feet, hooves, and wagon wheels would keep the earth hard-packed, preventing the evil thing from finding its way to the surface?
Another intriguing question is: How did a beautiful Odom chair, much sought-after by the upper-classes of Tennessee society, find their way in to a cabin high above the Hiawassee River? And how did they fall into the hands of such a disreputable woman?
The chair, made by Eli and Jacob Odom was possibly passed down throughout the years, or the chair could have been given to her by someone in return for favors and without any knowledge on the part of the Odom brothers. If this is the case, then we will probably never know how it came into the witch-woman's possession.
As for the rest of the chair that the leg belonged to, it had allegedly "done the rounds" of the state, or so the gossip said. And the tale about how it worked its wicked magic never varied. At first, it is remarkably comfortable as the occupant settles back into it. Gradually, the person becomes more uncomfortable the longer he or she sits in it, and he or she becomes extremely tired and seems unable to rise. The victim may be unaware of this, and the vampiric lethargy may be passed off as simply weariness; later, when the chair has sated itself, its prisoner will be released, only to return later to have more energy and vitality drawn off again by the hideous seat.
Some stories say that it was last seen on the porch of a hotel near Charleston, the last one of a number of similar seats that had been put out for residents. Other tales say that it was seen among the furnishings of an elderly house in Greeneville; other sightings speak of it on the creaky porch of a rooming-house in Gatlinburg; in a college-house at Tusculum; in a shop in Kingsport that sold antiques. It has been seen in many locations all over the eastern state and certainly many stories are told about it. Its baleful influence stretches right across Tennessee.
Besides, any attempt to destroy it might provoke supernatural consequences. And in some versions of the tale, the wood of the chair is supernaturally impervious to blows with hammers and hatchets, so it cannot be destroyed. By the same token, however, nobody seems to want to keep it for long. Despite the grandeur of the seat, they are all too aware of the spirit of the witch-woman exerting its influence. The only way to get rid of it, it seems, is to give it to someone else.
And folklore even suggests that it might have moved outside the confines of the state—perhaps further north. There is even a rumor that it might have been shipped abroad to Europe. In truth, nobody knows exactly where it's gone. If I were you, I'd take a good, long look at the chair you're currently sitting on.
The idea that at least some part of human consciousness can live on in inanimate objects is not all that uncommon in folklore. The basic belief is that if inanimate objects are strongly associated with an individual for a length of time, they absorb some of the characteristics of that person. In some instances, the soul of a deceased person may have attached itself to some object that the person used in life, and this has formed the basis not only of many folktales, but of several ghost stories as well.
The Irish folklorist and storyteller Michael J. Murphy (who served as a collector for the Irish Folklore Commission) recounts a number of similar tales from various parts of Ireland. The items range from a bone comb that continually exuded the smell of apple blossom throughout a room, which signaled the favorite scent of the owner, to a pair of sturdy leather boots that began walking around at about 5 o'clock in the morning, the same time as their previous owner would have arisen. Many of these items were everyday things that might be found around a house, but had been imbued with something relating to those who handled them. And it was possible to deliberately imbue some inanimate object with part of one's personality—maybe even for malign purposes. However, such an activity smacked of dark witchcraft.
In American folklore and tradition, the most common item that took on some of the personality of a living person was the Cussing Coverlet. According to hill tradition, this was one of the staples of Appalachian witchcraft and it was not something of which mountain people often spoke.
All through the mountains, many women made patchwork quilts—either in quilting bees run by the various hill churches, or alone in their cabins by lamplight at the end of a long day. Many of these quilts, which were used to cover wood-frame beds, were works of art. There were certain standard designs, of course, but some women, particularly those who lived away in the remoter hollows, often designed their own. Some even sewed a memento into the work—a lock of hair, pieces of old garments, or baby clothes—all the things that went to make up their lives and had made them who they were. Like the mountain chairs, it was possible to name the woman who had sewed and embroidered a quilt from the pattern on the Coverlet. And as individual styles determined the quilt, so did the hopes and dreams of the sewer as her fingers worked the stitches. And in some cases, all her hates and frustrations were built into the embroidery as well. It was possible to weave a curse into the very fabric of the quilt so that it might do harm to others.
Excerpted from American Vampires by Bob Curran, Gina Talucci, Ian Daniels. Copyright © 2013 Dr. Bob Curran. Excerpted by permission of Career Press.
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