The Haunted Highway

Just a few weird tales from Kingston Pike's gothic era

There was a time when you wouldn't want to take this road by yourself. It was a dozen miles of weird noises, weird lights, weird deaths.

When they found her body in the woods, this area wasn't called West Knoxville yet. Knoxville was way back there. No longer a state capital or much of anything else in 1827, Knoxville was a melancholy town stranded without many of the wonders of this new American age. It was a leftover city, unreachable by rail and forbidding to steamboats. Knoxville's contact with the outside world was a red-clay rut, a 30-foot-wide rip in the wilderness called the Kingston Road.

Not yet a pike, the horsetrail was doing some business in 1827, when Campbell Station and Loveville (named for ambitious entrepreneur Robertus Love) were West Knox County's rival towns. To some travelers, the Kingston Road was a cause for dread.

The Cavet Station massacre of 1793, the worst multiple homicide in Knox County history, was not far from the western road. Knoxvillians of the 1790s regarded that site, and its mass grave, with horror. Not long after that, the Kingston Road was also the silent witness to Knoxville's first unsolved murder: the only evidence was blood in pools on the road near Looney's Bend, and a blood-spotted trail of trampled brush to the river.

Farther out the road, just on the west side of Bearden, was a dark, thickly wooded pocket. By 1820, it was known as Murderer's Hollow. More than once, corpses of murder victims had turned up there. Moreover, travelers passing through the hollow reported strange noises in the woods. Sometimes a bright light that would follow their wagons silently along the road. And then, abruptly, the light would vanish.

Some killings were never solved. But the creepiest story in Kingston Pike's gothic history is a closed case. As grisly as the murder was, the detective's investigation was a little grislier. We know about the story thanks to William D. Peters, the West Knox County journalist/postmaster of the Victorian era. He had a taste for the bizarre.

Peters had made a name for himself for his on-the-spot reporting of the disastrous Flat Creek train wreck of 1889, which killed several prominent Knoxville politicians and businessmen on their way to an railway-opening ceremony at Cumberland Gap. The 26-year-old Peters survived the wreck and sent detailed dispatches to the Journal, astonishing colleagues with his speed and clarity.

Peters lived on the rural west side of town, though, and became preoccupied with his neighborhood's gruesome history. In 1894, Peters wrote about several of Kingston Pike's murders in a newspaper series called "An Historic Highway." The weirdest of the weird tales he told came from 1827, just before Andrew Jackson's presidency.

On out the Kingston Road, four or five miles past Murderer's Hollow, a mile this side of Loveville, lived a farmer named David Young. He lived right on the road, perhaps near where Pellissippi Parkway now crosses the Pike.

According to Peters, Young was "noted and generally disliked for his overbearing, treacherous disposition." Young was jealous about his wife—but "without much cause, as the story goes, for she was homely and possessed of an ungovernable temper."

One day, Young told his neighbors that he had found his wife dead in the woods near their house. She bore deep wounds in her back. James Seaton, esq., Knox County magistrate and coroner, rode out to inspect the scene, which had already drawn gawkers from as far away as Knoxville. He organized a Jury of Inquest to oversee the investigation.

As he did so, one old woman in the crowd—her name and status is lost to history—made a startling suggestion. "If the real murderer should touch the body," she declared, "blood would flow afresh from the wound."

At first, the startled magistrate laughed at what he regarded "a superstition, born and bred of positive ignorance." But there were few other clues, and the old woman, apparently a matron of some authority in the community, seemed to have a hold on the crowd.

Magistrate Seaton turned to the prime suspect, David Young, and invited him to touch his dead wife's body. Young stepped forward and fingered the dried wounds in her back.

"As soon as Young touched the wounds," Peters reported, "blood fairly gushed from them." Viewing what he regarded as incontrovertible evidence, Young confessed on the spot. He'd been jealous of his wife's intentions, he said. He'd snuck up behind her as she was hoeing and chopped into her back with his axe.

The magistrate arrested Young and took him down the Kingston Road to Knoxville. Convicted, Young hanged on the highest hill downtown: Summit Hill, long before it was the site of a Catholic Church. Or, as it was then known, Gallows Hill.

Peters insisted the story of Mrs. Young's body suddenly gushing blood when touched was strictly true, based on "the best of authority." Peters kept writing, but eventually became the postmaster of the tiny community of Ebenezer, not far from the Youngs' old homestead.

Many of his favorite stories involved mysterious, violent deaths, and the discovery of bloodstained bodies. His own turned up near the end of the Great War, in late October, 1918. They found the 55-year-old journalist-postmaster by the tracks, near the Ebenezer depot, and not far from the Pike whose dark history he chronicled. His body bore numerous injuries and several broken bones. The particulars of Peters' death were never certain; there were no witnesses. The chief suspect was the Memphis Special.

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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