published Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Even minus the politics, some say Tennessee's Capitol is a house of horrors

The Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville.
The Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville.
Photo by The Tennessean /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE — In a very old building that has witnessed unceasing turmoil and countless back stabbings — not to mention having four people entombed within its walls or buried on its grounds — you might expect talk about things going bump in the night.

And if the place is Tennessee's state Capitol, you'd be right.

While by no means a Stephen King-like Halloween house of horrors, the Capitol, dedicated in 1859 and one of the nation's oldest working state capitols, does have its ghost stories and a reputation for unexplained goings-on.

That's not even getting into the living politicians who have been known to frighten citizens.

Officials and workers say that by night the Capitol's atmosphere can be unsettling, eerie even, especially when you're alone in the three-story, Greek-revival limestone behemoth.

"I don't have any interesting [ghost] stories, but I will tell you it can be a spooky place to work late at night," said Secretary of State Tre Hargett, whose office is on the Capitol's first floor. "Nobody else is around. You can hear all kinds of things. I used to hear creaks. You could hear footsteps. But it's just you and the Capitol."

Comptroller Justin Wilson also works there.

"I think it's fair to say some employees believe it is haunted," Wilson said. He's not among them, but he too said he's heard odd noises while working alone at night.

A state trooper who asked not to be identified recalled patrolling the Capitol late one night. He was heading down the stairwell to the ground floor when the sound of the first-floor door above startled him. He was alone -- the only person in the building.

"That door slammed," he said. "I couldn't believe it. I know I'd shut it. I don't know what caused it. But it wasn't the wind."

A ghostly lady and quarreling spooks?

Back in 1995, then-state maintenance worker Bruce Overton told a reporter about one of several unsettling experiences he had. This one happened at night while he was alone inside the governor's first-floor suite of offices.

"I saw a lady cross [the room]," Overton said, adding that the woman wore an old-fashioned dress and resembled someone in a portrait then hanging in the office.

Officials later told him "it was a reflection off the street," said Overton, who didn't seem convinced. "They told me that [a reflection] is what I saw. I just left it that way."

Nationally acclaimed 19th-century architect William Strickland intended this Capitol to be his crowning achievement, and construction of the building began in 1845 with him overseeing work.

Slave and convict labor built the structure, with the limestone for its walls coming from nearby quarries. Marble floors were added during a 1950s restoration.

Strickland died in 1854, five years before the Capitol's 1859 dedication. At his request, state officials entombed the architect within the building's northeast corner.

He's not alone.

Joining him in 1880 with his own tomb in the Capitol's southeast corner was Samuel D. Morgan. Morgan was chairman of the Capitol Commission during the entire time the Capitol was under construction.

Legend has it that Strickland feuded with Morgan in life over the Capitol's construction costs and the two men haven't seen fit to stop the quarrel in their afterlife.

Frankie Harris, who co-owns Nashville Ghost Tours with his wife, Kim, called the Strickland-Morgan feud "probably the best-known story" about the Capitol. The building is a popular stop on his tour and his personal favorite because of the dramatic lighting and shadows at night.

"All the [ghostly] accounts involve them fighting ... shouting and arguing with each other," said Harris, who noted he personally has heard unexplained shouts and arguments at night coming from a deserted Capitol while he leads tours outside the building.

More ghosts?

Other claimed sightings involve a woman dressed in antebellum fashion. Some believe her to be Rachel Jackson, wife of President Andrew Jackson.

Harris said there's talk of a ghostly image of a man, possibly James K. Polk, kneeling at the mausoleum on the grounds where he and his wife are buried.

During the Civil War, the Capitol was occupied by Union troops. One reputed ghost is associated with a Union soldier and "comes out whenever there's disruption" or vandalism, Harris said.

"He's very physical," said Harris, who noted many of the incidents he hears come from police or Capitol security.

When Jim Hoobler, senior curator of the Tennessee State Museum, looks at the Capitol, he doesn't see dead people, or, at least not ghosts.

"I've been up there at all times of day and night I've never heard anything," Hoobler said.

Hoobler has spent years studying the Capitol and its history, which includes brief use as a Civil War hospital after a Middle Tennessee battle. During the 1950s, Elvis Presley made at least one appearance in the House chamber. In the 1980s, then-President Ronald Reagan addressed state lawmakers.

In 1920, state legislators at the Capitol made Tennessee the final state needed to ratify the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote.

"I think it's a shrine to expanding the voting rights," Hoobler said.

As for Strickland and Morgan, they weren't rivals, "they were a team," Hoobler said, since they fought to keep Capitol construction funding coming. Mind you, after Strickland's death there was a falling out between Morgan and Strickland's son, Francis, the curator said.

Ashley Poe works for the Tennessee State Museum and leads historical day tours inside the Capitol. She said she's yet to see anything supernatural but noted Tennessee's Capitol does differ from its 49 counterparts in one respect.

"We're the only state Capitol to be a mausoleum," she said.

As for the ghosts, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville said he's seen plenty of scary things during his tenure but none of the supernatural variety.

"Just tea party Republicans," he quipped.

House Clerk Joe McCord, a Republican, countered with his own favorite tale from Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen's second inaugural speech.

"The only stories that we've heard are Gov. [Phil] Bredesen talking to the walls," deadpanned McCord.

Bredesen raised eyebrows when he said, "that building says to me every day: 'Phil, you're not here all that long, you're called governor for a few years and then your portrait's up on the wall with the others and you're gone. But right now, it is your turn; what are you going to do with it?' "

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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