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Phantoms of the New Morgue
In recent years, the once-sedate city of Nashville has experienced rapid growth. People from all over are dying to move to Music City.
Much like the ever-widening interstates with their growing traffic jams, Nashville�s city morgue experienced a logjam as well. Most who pass peacefully (and prosperously) have their neighborhood funeral home prepare them for the great voyage. But the poor, the dispossessed, and the disreputable must needs resort to the municipal morgue. Luckless losers with no home, petty hoodlums iced in deals gone bad, winos sleeping under piers when the river rises�all end up under the medical examiner�s scalpel in the morgue.
For decades, a rambling complex of stone and brick buildings on a bluff overlooking a bend of the Cumberland was home to Metro General Hospital. Part of that complex housed the morgue. Although the morgue warehoused the less fortunate only briefly, the spirits of the dead often stayed long after their bodies moved on.
A popular theory as to what causes ghosts holds that when someone dies a violent or premature death or dies with important business unfulfilled, the spirit fails to move on, instead staying bound to the earthly plane. Since the city morgue housed the bodies of many such individuals, it is perhaps not surprising that it collected spirits as a matter of course.
Originally, the morgue was housed on the top floor of the oldest wing of the hospital. Nurses and aides frequently referred to that floor as �the Haunted House.� The aging Victorian brick structure looked eerie enough to give the House of Usher a run for its money.
Over the years, many on the hospital staff had weird experiences in the old morgue. So common were spooky encounters that attendants became reluctant to go to the top floor, to the point that, when compelled to bring a corpse up there, they would hastily leave the gurney bearing the body sticking halfway out the swinging doors, then make a quick retreat. Often as not, a nurse with more grit would end up going upstairs to store the body properly.
Finally, as the need for storage space increased and the need for forensic exams grew apace, the city morgue was moved to a larger facility, a gray stone outbuilding at 84 Hermitage Avenue. No doubt, many in the hospital breathed a sigh of relief.
But the transition to more spacious quarters in no way brought a halt to the morgue�s spectral visitations. The squarish brick-and-stone two-story building�s basement became the morgue�s new home. Soon, it began experiencing uncanny phenomena much as the old morgue had. Medical investigators working there witnessed strange sights. A shadow without any accompanying object was seen levitating across a room and disappearing inside the opposite wall. Notations written on a message board in the lab vanished without cause or explanation.
As time went on, the incidents became even harder to explain. On one occasion, a staffer caught a glimpse of a man in a striped coat reflected in a window. When he turned around, no one was there. Another time, a large metal tray was heard loudly clattering to the floor in the M.E.�s office in the dark of night. When someone went to investigate the commotion, nothing was out of place. More commonly, staff members working in the new morgue admitted to the eerie sensation of being watched or of feeling they were not alone when no one living was there besides themselves.
Over the years, employees of the city morgue became convinced that the facility was genuinely haunted, although few were willing to discuss such things on the record. An exception to this was medical investigator Gary Biggs. On at least one occasion, Biggs gave journalists a long history of encounters he had in the new morgue.
For example, he told of the instance when he spied a lady in a vivid yellow dress, only to see her disappear before his eyes. Then there was the time he saw a man out of the corner of his eye coming down the hallway. The man seemed to be looking over his shoulder at something. When Biggs turned to look directly as the mysterious gent, the spectral visitor was not there. While Biggs seems to have been more sensitive than most to paranormal phenomena, his experiences in the new morgue were far from unique. Even staff members who had no such dramatic encounters did not question the morgue�s haunted reputation.
By its very nature, the morgue was prone to being a favorite haunt of restless spirits. However, the paranormal activity on Hermitage Avenue may owe its origin to events farther in the past than the old general hospital and city morgue.
Only a few blocks from Metro General lies the site of an Indian massacre dating to the city�s early days. On the western shoulder of Rutledge Hill, a violent clash took place between settlers and Indians. Afterward, the bodies of the slain were hastily tossed in a shallow grave somewhere in the vicinity. Later, in the Civil War, a Union fort stood where the hospital later went up. During the Battle of Nashville, men fought and died on the same turf where the morgues, old and new, were located. Then, too, a �contraband camp� sprouted just downhill from the fort during the war. Fugitive slaves camped there in their bid for freedom. Lacking food, money, and decent shelter, many of them died from exposure and starvation in that place and were unceremoniously buried in unmarked graves.
And if all this was not sufficient to attract the spirits of the restless dead, the old University of Nashville�s medical department once stood a block from the city morgue. Cadavers were stored there in days gone by. After the Civil War, the university went out of existence, but its medical school was grafted onto the new Vanderbilt University. A staid Victorian building still proudly bears the name of the department in the arch over its entrance. Not surprisingly, spectral goings-on have been reported at the former medical school on Second Avenue South as well.
If old Metro General witnessed pain and suffering, it also helped many folks in need and saved untold lives over the decades. But as Nashville grew, so, too, did the demand for a newer facility to better serve the city. The new millennium witnessed the move of Nashville General Hospital to a more up-to-date facility in another part of town. Not long after that, the medical examiner�s department also departed Hermitage Avenue. In July 2001, in an arrangement involving the state, the city, and a private forensic medical group, the examiner�s operations were moved to a state-of-the-art facility adjacent to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation�s new headquarters�one stop chopping, as it were. The medical buildings on Rolling Mill Hill were left vacant�except, of course, for the spirits of the dead.
Today, the grounds of the old city hospital are undergoing yet another transformation. Once a frontier trail, then a Civil War fort, then an inner-city hospital, they are now being converted into a complex of upscale townhouses, condominiums, and shops. The �new� morgue at 84 Hermitage Avenue is gone completely, the building razed along with most of the rambling hospital complex. But the oldest section of Metro General�the Victorian wing known as �the Haunted House��has been preserved and renovated for residential use.
Amid all these changes, one question remains unanswered: will the new, young urban pioneers who move to the old hospital grounds be able to reach an accommodation with their spectral neighbors? Only time will tell.