Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Fickleness of Phantoms—Rippavilla Plantation

5700 Main Street
Spring Hill, Tennessee

Phantoms and ghosts are very fickle things. Like birding for a rare species, it’s very difficult to find them, even in their natural habitat. I was contemplating all of this as I sat alone in a bedroom at Rippavilla around 2:30 AM, towards the end of my first, formal paranormal investigation.
                                                   
The facade of Rippavilla. Photo 2013 by Lewis O. Powell IV, all
rights reserved.
As Nashville, Tennessee sprawls its fingers outwards, it’s beginning to take over middle Tennessee. Small towns like Franklin and Spring Hill have been caught up in the web of development as these charming and once rural towns are paved over with asphalt and chain businesses. Franklin, just north of Spring Hill and closer to Nashville, has only in recent decades begun fighting back and working to preserve its historic and battle-scarred heart.

Spring Hill saw battle the day before the Battle of Franklin in 1864. While not a major battle it did leave a few hundred dead or wounded on both sides. Spring Hill was just a stepping-stone in Confederate General Hood’s attempt to dislodge the Union army from Nashville. As the fighting edged on towards Christmas, hope for the Confederacy faltered. Sherman held Atlanta and was marching to the sea destroying much in his path to Savannah, while Hood was defeated at Nashville and routed to Tupelo, Mississippi.

Part of that battle was fought on the grounds of Rippavilla Plantation just south of town and like so many buildings throughout the South, the house was used as a hospital. But this house has so many layers of history each leaving spirits within the house. One source reports spirits from Native Americans, through the Civil War and a smallpox epidemic during that era through to the 20th century, when rumors indicate the house may have seen use as a brothel.

The home is very similar to a number of other remaining plantation homes in the area in its brick construction and Greek Revival design. The columns, however, show the influence of Egyptian Revival design with capitals depicting papyrus but with the addition of the Greek-style acanthus leaf. This adds a unique touch. Apparently, while the exterior of the home has not changed much, the interior has changed greatly. Downtown Nashville’s First Presbyterian Church—now a National Historic Landmark—features Egyptian Revival elements, one must wonder if there’s a connection.

The Egyptian-Greek capitals of Rippavilla's
columns. Photo 2013 by Lewis O. Powell IV
all rights reserved.
Visitors being shown inside will encounter a dramatic, sweeping staircase that splits at the landing to rise to the second floor. This feature was added in the early 20th century to replace the smaller and less dramatic staircase. Electricity, plumbing and air conditioning were installed in the house as well as bathrooms.

The home was built by Nathaniel Cheairs, a wealthy cotton planter. It was modeled on Ferguson Hall—the nearby home of his brother, Martin. Work was begun in 1851 and it took four years to complete. The large kitchen building behind the house was completed first and the family lived there until the mansion was finished. Legend holds that the mansion’s walls were pulled down three times to correct Nathaniel’s perceived deficiencies in the masonry.
 
The back of the house from the courtyard. Photo 2013 by Lewis
O. Powell IV, all rights reserved.
Rippavilla flourished along with other plantations owned by Cheairs nearby and by 1860, the census reports some 75 slaves working the estate. Though, with the coming war, all that would change.

Many have automatically assumed that I’m a paranormal investigator. That’s not really the case. I consider myself a writer and researcher—more adept at sussing out information and presenting it in a palatable form—as opposed to an investigator tramping through historic places with loads of technology. I can say, that I’m very much a Luddite. Not that I reject technology, but I do grow weary of having to keep up with it.

This brings me to sitting alone in a bedroom at Rippavilla Plantation last weekend as the clock neared 3 AM. We’d been told to pick a room and then just sit for a little while and see what happens. Always being the “different” one, I chose the room that a number of people didn’t “like.” One of the volunteers helping with the investigation had told me that she could not enter this particular room. If she did, she’d usually end up having an emotional reaction.

Middle Tennessee was one of the areas that saw the brunt of the Civil War. As the last state to join the waltz of the Confederacy, Nashville became an immediate target for the Union and was the first state capitol to fall into their hands. Those cities and towns south of Nashville—Franklin, Spring Hill and Columbia, among them—were captured and held by armies of both sides during this turbulent period. After Sherman’s capture of Atlanta, far south, the Confederates under General Hood—who had lost Atlanta—attempted to capture Nashville and redeem themselves in the eyes of the Confederates.

Spring Hill and its surrounding estates had seen an influx of Confederate wounded into the small town. Many of the homes—including Rippavilla—had been requisitioned for use as hospitals. According to my guides in the house, the house had seen a smallpox epidemic among the wounded in 1862. During Hood’s Nashville campaign, wounded soldiers one again began to pour in followed by a series of generals, including Hood himself. During the fighting here in Spring Hill, Rippavilla’s fields were the scene of fighting.

This bedroom, in particular, had been used as a surgery. Blood stains on the floor attested to that fact. A military style bed had been installed in the room with soldier’s accoutrements sitting upon and around it. I found a single chair within in the room next to the door leading into the next bedroom. Through the door I could see the door of another bedroom, one that had bloodstains from a more recent murder still staining the floor.

All of this did make me uncomfortable. Glancing at the floor around my chair I did see about five drops of something staining the floor. My active imagination envisioned these drops possibly dripping from a surgeon’s knife or a spurting artery as a soldier writhed in pain. In fact, I had nothing to indicate it was actually even blood.

Still, sitting in this room, I found it hard to imagine the air filled with moans and cries, as it would have been during the war. Though, it seems that other, far more sensitive souls had had experiences in this room. Earlier in the evening, as I was awaiting the start of the investigation, a volunteer who had been working in the house that weekend began to report the smell of tobacco in that room along with the smell of an astringent—possibly witch hazel. She’d been one of the first people in the house that morning when it was discovered that the antique dresses so carefully laid on the beds had been moved.

The senses can play tricks on you. At various times through the night, I was convinced that I saw things, but realized my eyes were fooling me. At times I may have heard things, but I was listening so hard my brain could have simply misinterpreted other, more common, sounds. For these reasons it is imperative for ghost hunters to obtain clear evidence and that exists for Rippavilla. During previous investigations, many Class A EVPs have been captured that point to the conclusion that this house is active. A haunting photograph with a couple of possible spiritual images and video of some type of phenomena that was captured on three different cameras also exists.

The investigation’s leader suggested that the site was very quiet that night. A fair had been held on the grounds of the house and many visitors had passed through the house in the days leading up to the investigation. Perhaps the spirits were resting?

As the group I was with concluded their first investigation of the second floor I walked through two of the bedrooms: the nursery and the master bedroom. We left the upstairs in the dark. We had not turned on any lights during the time we were up there. We returned to the kitchen and no one else was in the house. We returned to the upstairs about 15 minutes later to discover that lamps in both rooms were on. The lead investigator turned off the lamp in the master bedroom and then as he approached the lamp in the nursery it turned itself off. Were the spirits saying hello?

Civil War hospital display in one of the bedrooms. This is the bedroom
that staff members do not like. Photo 2013 by Lewis O. Powell IV, all
rights reserved.
The evidence is still being reviewed. Personally, the experience was really wonderful. Though, in the words of one of the investigators, a paranormal investigation “is 7 hours of waiting and 60 seconds of a thrill.” To spend time in such a marvelous historic home, quietly contemplating darkened rooms is actually really wonderful, especially in today’s hyper world of fast technology, instant gratification and even quick tours of historic sites, the experience of sitting and listening and imagining is often lost.

This investigation at Rippavilla lead by Dudley Pitts of Innovative Paranormal Research (IPR) and resident paranormal investigator is held monthly. I’d like to thank Mr. Pitts and the investigators for their help and leadership during the investigation and especially Laura Bentley and Lisa Webber for their kindness. For further information, contact Rippavilla Plantation on their website or through their FaceBook page, “Whispers of the Past.”

Sources
History of Nashville, Tennessee. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 20
     July 2013.
Logsdon, David R. “Rippavilla.” Middle Tennessee Eyewitness to the Civil War.
     2012.
Morris, Jeff, Donna Marsh and Garett Merk. Nashville Haunted Handbook. Cincinnati,
     OH: Clerisy Press, 2011.

Rippavilla Plantation. “History.” Accessed 20 July 2013.

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations on your first investigation--hope you had a wonderful time! Personally, I really enjoy investigating, but I do still strongly prefer documenting the stories and researching the history as opposed to fiddling with a bunch of gadgets, lol. Anyway, what a really cool place! I've been wanting to investigate a location with alleged blood stains still visible so I can experiment a little with at least one type of technology technology....I've been itching to break out the Luminol!

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