gamut (2006-20)

In a large old building on my great Aunt Baxter’s property in Middle Tennessee, there was one particular antique that was unlike any other. It was a black wooden chair, plain but peculiarly wide. Its design suggested that it might have been custom-made for a fat man. The chair had arms too wide for any normal person to sit in with elbows resting comfortably. But it was not quite wide enough for two, unless the two were thin, and on intimate terms. It had a mournful bow to the back of it that looked like a frown. It was made of solid wood of unknown genus, imperfectly stained black.  It was not a handsome piece of furniture.

The first time I ever saw the chair, it was by lantern light, being shown as you might show a shrunken head. I remember not wanting to get too close.

I learned from the adults that it was the Bell Witch Chair.

My great Aunt Baxter lived in a complicated antebellum house just off the town square in Charlotte, Tenn. Though Charlotte was a tiny village, and maybe even smaller now, it’s the county seat of Dickson County, and my aunt’s house was just across the street from the ancient brick courthouse, which is today the oldest existing courthouse in Tennessee. The courthouse was built in the 1830s to replace the one destroyed by what the old folks called “the Hurricane,” back when hurricanes menaced that part of Tennessee that sees only tornadoes now. 

I came to understand very early that all sorts of strange things happened in the old days, like the fireball that came in a window, long ago, and bounced off that wall and that one, leaving scorch marks, before escaping out a window. Fireballs and hurricanes were, like earthquakes, things that used to happen in Middle Tennessee.

My aunt’s house had some white gingerbreading and I guess was technically Victorian, but much added onto, with entrances on all four sides, and porches, and odd little nooks here and there, designed as if to keep architectural historians guessing about the house’s evolution and the intentions of the builder. It had once been home to eight or nine people, among them my aunt’s father, mother, brother, sister, and a couple of her aunts. Aunt Baxter was the only one left. She never married; it was never clear why she might have need for any man, or whether he could have sustained any illusions of usefulness in her presence. She was a professional woman, a curiosity in rural Tennessee of the middle 20th century, a medical doctor.

The house was full of pictures of people who used to live there, almost all of them people I never met, several of whom Aunt Baxter never met, even in her long life there. Every piece of furniture had a story of some sort that only Aunt Baxter knew. There was Papa’s desk, Mamie’s bed, Munny’s bed, Collier’s bed. When I was there on a visit for summer or Thanksgiving, and was told I would be sleeping in someone else’s bed, I wondered if I would have to share it with the owner, who might show up in the middle of the night. I heard all these names so often and so familiarly, I didn’t realize when I was little that they were all people who died years ago.

Though the house was right in town, there were other outbuildings on the property, as there would be on a farm: a couple of sheds, one of them called the “smokehouse,” though whatever smoking went on there was long ago. The biggest building in the yard was the oddest, an oblong, plain, white clapboard building that fronted right on the square, with windows only on the street, tall, narrow ones that were always shuttered. Aunt Baxter called it “the Store.” She didn’t always explain things unless you asked her, but if you did ask, you’d learn that it had been a storehouse long ago, a dry-goods concern run by her grandfather in the days when Charlotte was a booming town aspiring to be a city.

Aunt Baxter was old, but she was not old enough to remember when the store was open. Judging by some business licenses still tacked to the walls, Collier’s Store had closed around 1890. Still, it was “the store.” It still had shelves along the walls, and aisles of shelves in between, and lots of furniture and appliances and clothes and trunks and baby buggies arranged on the shelves as if they were forgotten merchandise. 

The store had no windows on its longer walls, because it used to stand alongside other stores and saloons, all of them torn down, time out of mind. With the front window shuttered, it was always dark as a cavern, even on sunny days. So the first time I saw the Bell Witch Chair was in the dark, over 40 years ago. Someone was shining a light on it, repeating the story that the adults already knew.

The Bell Witch, I came to understand, wasn’t an old lady with a pointy hat and a broom and a talent for incantations, but something like a demonic ghost.

Back long before the Civil War, I learned, my Collier ancestors were acquainted with the John Bell family, who lived up along the shallow Red River, maybe 30 miles north of Charlotte.

Everyone had troubles in those days, but the Bells’ troubles seemed especially serious. Theirs was a dark tragedy, spoken of in the grim tones people use to describe the wars and storms that have afflicted that region of rolling hills.

For reasons obscure, a demon—some called her Kate —had moved in with the Bells.

More violent than any other ghost I’d heard of, the Bell Witch pulled people out of bed, yanked their hair, slapped them around, stuck them with pins. She spoke garrulously, and, worse, argued theology.

The ghost had possessed and ridiculed a professional “witch tamer.” She spooked even Gen. Andrew Jackson. He went to visit the ghost, but after a vocal confrontation with it, in which the ghost accused someone in his party of fraud, the Hero of New Orleans left early. “I would rather fight the entire British Army,” Jackson said, “than to deal with the Bell Witch.”

As a boy I knew my ghost stories, and that ghosts had a strict rule, that they haunted, they scared, but never hurt anybody. The Bell Witch was a killer. In 1820 the Bell Witch murdered poor Mr. Bell, with poison, and repeatedly hurt his daughter Betsy. It broke the rules, and was cursed even among the community of ghosts.

The story was that, after they couldn’t scour the witch from their house, some of the Bells fled, like some cursed Old Testament tribe. One son—or, in one version of the story, a close friend of the family—drove his wagon south, the bed of it loaded with furniture that had been in the Bell house. He would stay with a friendly family here and there, and leave a piece of furniture as a token of appreciation, a sort of tip. At some point perhaps in the 1820s, he stayed with the Collier family of Charlotte, and he left them an odd chair.

I get the impression no one ever knew quite what to do with it. A lot of the furniture kept in the store had been in the house at one time or another, and some chairs and tables got swapped back and forth on special occasions, when Aunt Baxter needed extra furniture for holidays. But the Bell Witch Chair stayed in the store. It was never in the main house.

It may have been exiled because it was ugly, and in fact it was very ugly. But its exile may have also owed much to the fact that it was the Bell Witch chair. My aunt was not a superstitious woman. She was a medical doctor. She kept her stethoscope and otoscope and sphygmomanometer in the house, and when one of us was sick, she’d give us a once-over.

All the men in the family were engineers, and not superstitious. However, as my father was known to say, some things are superstitions; some things are just bad luck.

So the Bell Witch Chair stayed outside, in the store.

The store was usually kept locked up. It was more or less Aunt Baxter’s attic, and she only went out there when she needed something. She’d grown up with it being right there, and to her the old store that had closed almost 80 years ago wasn’t such a curiosity.

For me, though, it was a fascinating place, and the highlight of every trip to Aunt Baxter’s was the obligatory expedition out to the store. I think my aunt may have induced my fascination with old things with a trick she played on me when I was about six.

One of the first times I remember going into the store, I found a couple of gold coins, lying there in an old drawer. They were genuine, old Civil War-era coins, a five-dollar piece and a 10 - dollar piece. Aunt Baxter let me keep them but insisted that I give one to my little sister, which seemed terribly unjust. I didn’t learn until years later that she had planted them for us to find.

Aunt Baxter’s trick hooked me. Ever after that, I’d beg to go out there. The answer was almost always, not today, maybe tomorrow. But then, the last day, we’d go.

Over the years I found things in there, a cannonball, a Humbug Tobacco cigar box, a broken bayonet, a portrait of a highwayman in the moonlight, some cast-iron toucans. Aunt Baxter would often let us keep stuff we found.

I remember some times, early on, walking into the store trying not shine my flashlight toward the cluttered counter where the chair was. But sometimes it would swing that way, anyway. That oddly wide black chair. The chair nobody ever sat in.

Later I sought it like I sought the mummy at the Charleston Museum or the bloodstains at Bleak House. I would find it with the light and stare. I wondered if the witch herself was ever fond of that chair. I wondered if maybe she was still sitting in it.

In what had once been the back of the dark store was a brighter, less-cluttered room that had been an office. Long after the store closed, my great-grandfather had kept his law office there.

Aunt Baxter eventually fitted that office room with a guest bed. She had so many old antique beds, one for each of the many people who used to live in the house—and occasionally, so many visitors at once, because she liked to invite her brother and sisters’ families from Knoxville and Crossville and Los Angeles over for holidays—that she forced every space in her house and grounds into service as a bedroom. The bedroom in the storehouse was the one most rarely used, being too distant for anyone to hear you say Good Night. 

Only when the house was completely full, a Thanksgiving once every couple of years, somebody had to sleep out in the bed in the back of the store. That lot tended to fall to the more sullen males. When I was about 15, it was my turn.

My parents had driven us in from Knoxville after school, and we arrived late that night. Aunt Baxter said this time I’d be sleeping out in the store. We went out there, across the lawn with a flashlight. She opened the door with a key and switched on the light. I stepped into the bedroom, and there, right in the office bedroom, on the floor just beyond the bed, as if it was any ordinary piece of furniture, was the Bell Witch Chair.

Aunt Baxter said so many people asked about it, she thought she’d bring it out where it was easier to see.

“Good Night,” she said. She went back to the house.

And there we were. It was there with its back to the wall, almost as if someone might sit in it.

I turned off the light and lay in the dark. Me and the Bell Witch Chair, alone together for the first time. The room seemed to get smaller. Something seemed to be afoot. I had the distinct impression the chair was growing larger.

I turned the light back on to check, and, no, it was still just that weird squat chair, no bigger than it had been. Something about it made me think of an arthritic dog, ill-intentioned but too sore to snap.

A couple of times during the night I heard something, like a skittering mouse. Or maybe a whisper. I turned on the light. The Bell Witch Chair frowned.

I was convinced the Bell Witch Chair was up to something. At one point I had the impression is was moving. I turned on the light again. No, it hadn’t moved. At least, it hadn’t moved very much.

"You’re up early,” Aunt Baxter said the next morning, at her breakfast table. “I thought you’d all sleep late. No one else is up yet.” 

“I was hungry,” I said.

I haven’t seen the movie, An American Haunting . I may not see it. If I didn’t see the Bell Witch Chair in the room with Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek, I’d be disappointed in the prop manager’s research.

But if I did see the Bell Witch Chair, there in the background, it might be a good deal worse.

I’ve called around. Nobody seems to know what happened to it. My Aunt Baxter died years ago. My Aunt Nancy wonders if maybe it got left in the store, which is now a storage area for the law firm that occupies my great aunt’s peculiar old house.

About 10 years ago, we cleared out the house she had lived in alone for so many years. Everybody in the family got a chance to put in dibs for this favorite piece of furniture or that. I thought about the Bell Witch Chair, and then thought again. What do you do with a Bell Witch Chair, anyway?