At the turn of the 20th century, members of Nashville's most prominent families would regularly gather at Ben and Sue Allen's house on Spruce Street and conjure up a supernatural entity they called The Thing. Yes, it sounds like the premise to a horror movie, or maybe the first part of a conspiracy theory to end all conspiracy theories.
But it's the truth. When most people think of supernatural stories from Tennessee's past, the example that comes readily to mind is the Bell Witch. In the early 1900s, however, The Thing was the most famous strange entity in Middle Tennessee. It's been all but forgotten today, but for want of a body count, The Thing's name might have been the words Middle Tennessee kids grew up saying fearfully into a mirror — and with better chances of a chilling result.
Ben Allen, according to George Zepp's Hidden History of Nashville, was a colorful character, a wealthy banker's son who "had developed a reputation as a jewelry-making hobbyist, a Freemason, a palmist, a hypnotist and a supernaturalist." For almost 30 years — until his death from "brain fever" in 1910 — Ben and his wife Sue conducted twice-weekly séances in their big red brick Italianate house just off Broadway.
Members of Nashville's elite, people with streets named after them today, would come to sit in their darkened dining room and hold hands while Ben helped Sue contact the dead. And often, when they were feeling daring, they would conjure up The Thing.
What was The Thing? Some said that it felt like a cat. Some thought it looked like a dog. Often, when it followed séance participants home, the growling, biting entity remained invisible, even as it shook people's houses with unseen blows. Neighbors who refused to walk near the house seemed to think it was a demon.
Even before The Thing came to town, Nashville was full of ghosts. By 1857, talking to spirits was so common that the Rev. Jesse Babcock Ferguson stood in the front of the Nashville Church of Christ and advocated chatting with the dead. In the 1870s, David McFall, who served on the board of the Tennessee Lunatic Asylum and in the state legislature — assuming those were separate entities — was profiled for his skills as a medium in American Spiritual Magazine. In 1887, when the first written account of the Bell Witch was published, Ben Allen was already a well-known occultist. He and Sue had been married four years.
The Thing thus arrived in a community open to the presence of spirits. Even skeptics believed such a thing as The Thing was possible. Investigations focused on whether this particular Thing was being faked, not on whether things like this Thing were fake.
Word of The Thing's existence eventually reached beyond Nashville. Well-known psychic researcher and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Hamlin Garland relays in his 1930s paranormal memoir that he heard about The Thing from Ittie K. Reno, then the society editor for the short-lived Nashville Daily News. She told him she attended a séance where a beast of some kind appeared beneath the table. A lawyer dropped to the floor to feel around for either The Thing or the person responsible for the fakery.
"Suddenly, with a yell, he scrambled to his feet, caught up his hat, and rushed from the house," Garland writes. "On the following day he explained his panic. 'A huge hairy beast hurled itself against me — a brute of enormous power. It followed me all the way home.' "
Garland writes that the story was later corroborated by Judge John M. Dickinson of Nashville, who said that he'd heard the story straight from the lawyer in question. (The judge is probably Jacob M. Dickinson, who went on to be secretary of war under Taft.).
The most in-depth reporting on the Allens comes from Margaret Lindsley Warden's story in the Jan. 14, 1951, Tennessean. Small wonder: Warden's second cousin, Cornelle Lindsley, was the wife of Sloss Baxter — the son of Sue Allen's sister. Stories of the Allens and their eccentric ways were family gossip.
Strangely enough, when fingers were locked around the table, it was the practical, extroverted Miss Sue who was the medium or the sensitive. It was for her that the spirits rapped messages and The Thing came. Sometimes the psychic-husband was not even in the house.
A rush of wind that rustled the ladies' voluminous petticoats usually announced the arrival of The Thing. Some felt The Thing to be like a large cat, others like an arm without hand or fingers. Besides rubbing legs, unbuttoning high-buttoned shoes, and rattling silver and china, other phenomena were attributed to it. The big table would rise and push people around the room. An occasional putrid odor would necessitate circle breaking and window opening.
The house where Ben and Sue Allen used to live at 125 Eighth Ave. S. is long gone, razed in the 1950s after spending its final years as a dilapidated rooming house. The site now houses the U.S. Community Credit Union. Don't bother calling the credit union to ask if they've had any run-ins with the entity who regularly visited the Allens. The woman who answered the phone didn't know, and the person whose voice mail she directed me to never called back.
I didn't expect her to. It's one thing to have a ghost. Ghosts, once you get past the spookiness, can be good for business. The Ryman, the Capitol, Tootsie's, Merchant's, etc. — all have their share of dead people still lingering, and tourists pay eagerly for the chance to see them. But things that haven't ever been human? That's a harder sell.
Nevertheless, the disappearance of The Thing from the city's consciousness is about as strange as if we suddenly all forgot about the Bell Witch.
That said, Nashville is full of fading stars — people so famous in their time your heart would have jumped into your throat to see them on the street. Now they shop unbothered at Target with the rest of us. They were legends, and then their legends were eclipsed by someone a little fresher, a little better connected, a little more willing to push the envelope.
The Thing had a great run as Nashville's most famous supernatural being, before the Bell Witch really caught on. And now it's all but forgotten. In a way, that seems fitting. That's how things work here.
Yet whenever I pass the credit union, I slow down, hoping against hope that The Thing is still around — lurking in the parking lot, maybe planning its comeback.
I've seen no sign of it yet.
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