The Mysteries of Octagon Hall: a home to history and haunting’s

 

 

 

As the first chill of autumn settles into evening air and the land begins its nightly journey into darkness, one can almost sense something otherworldly,  a presence, as if the past and present were moving toward each other in the stillness.    Most people from this area of Kentucky know that they live on a land rich with history and tradition, but many do not know or want to recognize that the past may be with us in ways we can scarcely believe or imagine.  We think we see a shadow flit past us, hear a voice that seems to have no source or feel the touch of an unseen hand when we least expect it. We laugh at ourselves and our reactions, but underneath we have a nagging sense that we just may not be as alone as we think in this old world of ours.   At no time of the year is this feeling more apparent than during the seasonal holiday we call Halloween.

Most of us do not know that the Halloween celebration is ancient in origin dating back to pre-Christian Europe, where it was a celebration of the end of the harvest season.    Our distant ancestors believed that this was a time when the veil that separated the world of the living from the world of the dead was thin and that on a certain day, the spirits of one’s ancestors and others would return home to bless or possibly curse the living.  To welcome these family spirits, food and drink would be placed on the door step or an empty place would be set for them at the family table with food.  Like many such traditions, the meal evolved into a social event where neighbors would come over, often in costume, and celebrate.  The original name for the season was Samhain pronounced “sow-when.”   As Christianity became the dominant religion, the church adopted and incorporated these older traditions and made them fit their theological stance.  Samhain the harvest festival eventually became “All Hallows Eve” which evolved into what we know as Halloween, a time of playful make-believe with a dose of ghostly good-will.

Here in Southern Kentucky, the belief in ghosts and haunted houses is as old as the first European settlement, and many a child has starred in wonder as a parent or grandparent relayed tales of things that went bump in the night.  Telling ghost stories was a way to talk about events in one’s local history and give moral lessons in a manner that would be remembered.  Often old homes, abandoned and desolate, were considered to be haunted and therefore to be shunned by child and adult alike.  Places where terrible events such as murder, suicide and tragic deaths occurred were considered to retain some of the trauma of those events as a reminder for all who might venture there. This belief about haunted places is common to almost every culture around the world.

One such place is The Octagon Hall Museum and Confederate Studies Archive located on 6040 Bowling Green Road just north of Franklin, KY.  This antebellum, eight-sided, three story brick home, one of only four brick eight-sided homes remaining in this country, began construction in 1847 and was completed in 1859.  It was built as the residence of Andrew Jackson Caldwell and his family. As the Civil War spread throughout the new nation, Caldwell a slaveholder, whose brother was a colonel in the rebel army, threw his support firmly behind the Confederacy.  It was known that any Confederate soldier who could make it to the Caldwell’s’ farm would receive shelter and medical care and be hidden from the Union forces that were often following in hot pursuit.  There are stories of wounded soldiers dying from their wounds while hiding in the attic.  In February of 1862, the famous “orphan brigade” fled Bowling Green and headed for Nashville, Tennessee. It is estimated that twelve thousand rebel troops were camped on the property during one night and, within a day; an estimated force of eighteen thousand Union troops chasing them also camped on the Caldwell farm for several days.  It is documented that several soldiers never physically left with their comrades and at least two soldiers lie buried on the property.

The Caldwell family had its own tragedies to accommodate with the deaths of family members and especially with the tragic death of seven-year-old Elizabeth Caldwell.  Elizabeth, while playing in the basement “winter” kitchen with her cousin, caught her dress on fire and burned to death.  She is buried in the family plot yet many people have learned that Elizabeth may still be present.  Many of the stories of ghosts surrounding the property are considered to be associated with the Caldwell family, including the smell of flowers and then the stench of decay on the anniversary of Andrew Jackson Caldwell’s death.  The local police have been summoned as motion detectors triggered alarms on many occasions, only to find the house locked and secure. Children who have toured the house have reported seeing other children in historical costume playing in and around the home yet no adult witnessed the presence of these children.

In 2001, after several owners and being used as rental property, the Byrd family purchased the property and began to renovate the house, turning it into a museum (501C3 non-profit) that features the Civil War history of the home and region with many rare Civil War artifacts from the Bowling Green/Franklin area, as well as from other areas of Kentucky and Tennessee.   Billy D. Byrd, executive director estimates that Octagon Hall receives between five and six thousand visitors a year.

Like many old homes, the act of renovating a structure seems to awaken something that make its presence known in a myriad of ways.  The Octagon House was no exception and the Bryd family soon realized there was something really odd going on as they worked to build their museum.  Beds which were part of the historical exhibits were found to contain the impression of a body having been lying on it, though no one had.  Shadowy figures appeared on the staircase and doors opened and closed on their own.   The author of this article personally witnessed this odd door phenomena while on a historical tour of the house one afternoon in 2007.  Upon examining the door, I could find no device or wire to suggest trickery and hence I have no explanation for what I experienced.

As the renovation continued, disembodied voices appeared on digital recorders placed in the rooms to catch them.  These voices which were not heard by the researchers at the time they were recorded seem to come from nowhere and provided answers to questions posed by the researchers or simply made statements like “Leave that alone!”   Near Elizabeth Caldwell’s grave a young girl’s voice was recorded crying ”Mommy” while no child was physically in the area. These disembodied voices are called EVPs or Electronic Voice Phenomena which some people suggest are the voices of those on the other side of the veil of existence.  The Byrd family, initially resistant to the idea of exhibiting a haunted house, eventually accepted the phenomena and began to reach out to those who investigate such events.  As of the date, over sixty-two  “paranormal” groups have researched the property and come away with a wide variety of experiences and evidence including ghostly photos of an adult male in the window, ghostly children playing in the driveway and apparitions in the basement.   The Hall’s haunted residents have been the subject of documentaries for PBS, The History Channel as well as The Discovery and Sci-Fi Channels.

So what is going on?  I don’t think any responsible, open-minded person in this period of history can speak on these matters with any sense of absolute conviction.   No one knows just what exactly is going on except that something is happening.  Whatever explanation you wish to give to the experience of the ghost, whether psychological, metaphysical or theological, I think the jury is still out on this almost universal human experience.  We may one day have the technological means to prove or disprove the existence of  ghosts, just as we have found a way to measure and quantify the presence phenomena like radio waves, gravity or gamma rays, to name a few.  Until that day, we can all go to places like the Octagon House, as sincere students of history or as curious investigators of the unknown.   Either path you take, The Octagon Hall Museum and Confederate Studies Archive will be a fascinating stop on your journey of discovery. Check out their website at www.octagonhall.com for tours and for further information, you can call (270) 586-9343. The Museum is open Wednesday – Saturday, 8am-11:30am and 1pm – 3:30pm.   “Haunted” tours are held every weekend however, the Hall is closed on all major holidays except Halloween.