Karen lives in Jackson, MS, with her husband and son and works as an accountant. She enjoys writing, reading, and D&D role-playing games.
The Devil's Backbone: Ghosts of the Natchez Trace
The "Mysterious Barren Pathway," known as the Natchez Trace, is host to oodles of ghastly tales. From deep in the South's most fabled mighty (and often horrifying) Mississippi River at Natchez to the southern country capital of Nashville, Tennessee, the Trace winds and haunts through foggy, moss-covered forests and blue-mud crypts to weave tales only the bravest and most brazen dare tell.
Stories range from torture, mayhem, and suicidal heroes to damsels, witches, and wolf-men. Other tales include pirates who prey not only on riverboats but also on weary land travelers forging homeward on these spooky and often deceivingly peaceful Trace trails. If you dare step into this world of secret lore, you do so at your own risk. Nary a landlubber comes out the other side of this collection of horrid tales the same as when you innocently landed here. Go now, I bid you farewell . . . or read on, if you dare!
". . . the Trace was referred to by the folks who used it as 'The Devil’s Backbone.' The illustrative appellation hailed from the dangerous conditions along the Trace, which ranged from the natural—like crumbling paths and foreign remoteness—to the human, as in highwaymen and thieves."
— "The Devil's Backbone: Early Days on the Natchez Trace," PorterBriggs.com
Haunted Places of the Trace: A Compilation
We cannot tell you all the stories . . . there are so many! (And frankly, some are just plain too horrific for this article!) But there are more . . . oh yes. So many more!
Stories in This Article
- Windsor Ruins
- The 13 Graves of Unknown Confederate Soldiers
- Samuel "Wolfman" Mason
- Witch Dance
- Mount Locust Inn
- The Harpe Brothers
- John A. Murrell and the Under-the-Hill Gang
- Grinder House and Meriwether Lewis
- King's Tavern
- Devil's Punchbowl
Other Stories About the Trace
- Sunken Trace
- Rocky Springs
- Ghost town Rodney
- LeFleur's Bluff
- Bynum Mounds
"I have never seen, in this small section of old Mississippi River country and its little chain of lost towns between Vicksburg and Natchez, anything so mundane as ghosts, but I have felt many times there a sense of place as powerful as if it were visible and walking and could touch me.
The clatter of the hooves and the bellow of boats have gone, all old communications. The Old Natchez Trace has sunk out of use; it is deep in leaves . . ."
— Eudora Welty
1. Windsor Ruins: Trace Haunt Central
Perhaps the ghosts were "mundane" to Eudora Welty, but she certainly admits to feeling a spiritual presence here. I believe this is a good place for spirits to congregate. It is one of the few landmarks which still stands but is not inhabited and is for the most part a private place for them to do whatever it is they do. I like to think of it as Trace Haunt Central. Not a place to scare folks away, but a place to stay, a home of sorts, to come back to for rest. For surely ghosts need rest too!
2. The 13 Graves of Unknown Confederate Soldiers
From a Yankee soldier hiding under his Confederate girlfriend's hoopskirts to those hiding in ambush, the battle fought here was mixed up, confusing, and resulted in some unsavory and too-soon souls' deaths. The town that was almost the capital of Mississippi is left to ruins, inhabited today by only a handful of living souls, outnumbered fivefold by their dead counterparts. The ghosts who remain here are angry and resentful for the war that ruined their lives and their town.
Rodney is just off the Trace and not far from Alcorn State University. Plenty of partying freshmen can tell you tales of the spooky town at night. It is rare for any student to come here twice. The upperclassmen know better! If you find yourself driving through the trace around Rodney, keep your eyes on the road and feet to the floor. Stopping here is not recommended at night.
3. Samuel "Wolfman" Mason
Samuel “Wolfman” Mason and his gang attacked boats on the Mississippi. They also became one of the earliest highwaymen or “Land Pirates” along the Natchez Trace.
Read More From Exemplore
After floating their produce southward down the river, settlers and traders traveled by foot or horseback along the trail, mainly in a northerly direction through dense thicket and swamp. They journeyed back by land because their boats could only be poled tediously northward upstream. If they escaped attack by the river pirates on the downward river journey, they ran a high risk of being robbed on the return overland trip.
Although Samuel Mason was killed by two of his own men in 1804 (one being “Little Harpe,” who had been ousted from his gang along with his brother), others swiftly took his place, and the Natchez Trace remained a dangerous place for several decades.
The crusty old man who robs river travelers, as portrayed by Walter Brennan in the 1960 movie How the West Was Won, is loosely based on Sam Mason. Mason’s criminal career lasted 21 years until he became such a menace that rewards totaling $2000 “dead or alive” were placed on his head. Sometime in October of 1803, the outlaws seeking the reward returned with Mason’s head rolled in a ball of clay.
4. Witch Dance
Witch Dance is one of the most legendary places in the country when it comes to tales about ghosts and paranormal experiences. Witches hold nighttime ceremonies along the Trace. Wherever the witches' feet touched the ground, the grass withered and never grew back again.
Built over a 200-year period between around 100 B.C. and 100 A.D, the original inhabitants of the area around Witch Dance were the Hopewell Indians. Later part of the Chickasaw, the Hopewell legends and folklore were likely responsible for much of the fear the later settlers would endure. The stories tell of a medicine stick and a white dog leading their ancestors to find their new home as they escaped an oppressive life in Mexico. Each night, the Indians planted the medicine stick in the ground and each morning checked to see which way it pointed. This was the direction they followed. Eventually, the group stopped here around Witch Dance. Their ancestors' bones were brought along on the trip by "bond bearers", and are a part of these mounds. The bones in these mounds could be several thousand years old.
Big Harpe (the bloodthirsty outlaw who preyed on the caravans of settlers moving up and down the Trace) made fun of the Witch Dance legend. When an Indian guide told Big Harpe about the bare spots and the legend of Witch Dance, Big Harpe leaped from spot to spot, daring the witches to come out and fight him.
5. Mount Locust Inn: Where Locusts Shed Their Skin
Mount Locust, located atop a hill at the 15.5-mile marker of the Natchez Trace Parkway, is one of the most important historic sites along the 444-mile-long National Park area.
Built in 1780, while the American Revolution was still in full fury, the historic home originally served as an inn or "stand" along the famed Natchez Trace.
Kaintuck boatmen were farmers who built simple boats, called "Kaintucks" out of lumber and floated their crops down the Mississippi, selling both the crops and the lumber for a hefty profit in New Orleans. On their way back up, via the Natchez Trace, they stopped at makeshift Inns like these to rest, only to be plundered for their riches by land pirates, and sometimes . . . worse. The Kaintuck Six vowed revenge and banded together as ghosts to protect the travelers who stayed at Mt Locust. The Ghost Wars around there get pretty ugly, I'm told, but the Kaintuck Six are tough . . . and stand their ground.
6. The Harpe Brothers
The bloodthirsty Harpe brothers, Micajah ('Big Harpe') and Wiley ('Little Harpe'), also robbed along the Natchez Trace. Described as "remorseless butchers" and "damned for eternity to wander" the streets of Natchez, the brothers were probably insane, as they murdered on the slightest pretext.
On one occasion, Big Harpe killed Major John Love merely because he snored too loudly. The brothers also murdered women and children and often dismembered their victims' bodies. Some of the stories of these two men are simply too brutal to describe here.
Eventually, Big Harpe was killed by vigilantes in 1799. One of the vigilantes, in revenge for his wife who had been murdered by the brothers, severed Big Harpe's head and nailed it to a tree on the Natchez Trace. A few months later, after it totted down to a bleached, white skull, an old hill woman who had a reputation for being a witch pulled down the skull and ground it into powder to be used in a potion. It is said that travelers who retold the story along the Trace swore they could hear crackling laughter in the bushes after retelling the tale.
In 1804, Little Harpe was captured, convicted, and legally hanged.
More on the Brutal Life of the Harpe Brothers
- Revolutionary Killers: Harpe Brothers, Serial or Spree? by Clare Toohey
Discussing America's most likely candidates for its first serial killers, the horrifying Harpe brothers of the Revolutionary Period.
7. John A. Murrell and the Under-the-Hill Gang
John A. Murrell, born in Tennessee the same year that Little Harpe died, also terrorized travelers along the Natchez Trace and later claimed to have controlled a huge robber gang, which operated over eight states of the southern Middle West.
In the 1830s, he plotted to incite a widespread slave rebellion. Many northerners, who supported the abolition of slavery, gave their tacit support, not realizing that Murrell's real intention was to establish a robber empire by recruiting the freed slaves for his band of highwaymen. When the plot was revealed in 1834, bringing retribution, some 20 of Murrell's men were hunted down, captured, and executed. He himself was apprehended and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, which he served in Nashville penitentiary. After his release, he died of consumption (pulmonary tuberculosis) in 1844.
Murrell's biggest scam involved taking advantage of "freed" slaves. He offered them asylum in exchange for "pretending" to be auctioned off and "re-freed" by Murrell . . . over and over again, until the slave was eventually recognized. Murrell then would mercilessly murder the "freed" slave and move on to his next victim. He got away with this over and over again until he was finally caught. The "freed" slaves' souls, according to legend, continue to look out for their descendants, to warn them of the likes of Murrell and others who would capitalize on their plight—all descendants of Murrell's victims are said to be "protected" by the ghosts of his deadly deeds.
The ghost of John Murrell is also connected to the Devil's Punch Bowl. It is said to be his hiding place.
"It's . . . so . . . hard . . . to . . . die."
— Meriwether Lewis
8. Grinder House and Meriwether Lewis
The body of explorer Meriwether Lewis (of the famous Lewis and Clark expeditions) was found here, outside Grinder's Stand. This was a family log cabin that housed travelers on the Natchez Trace.
Lewis supposedly (it's questionable whether it was murder or suicide) shot himself in the side and head. A "terrified woman" (Mrs. Grinder) heard him say, "It's so hard to die." Some suspect Mrs. Grinder of the murder because the family was "suddenly rich" and Lewis's gold watch later turned up in Louisiana. His ghost haunts the place to this day and is often heard repeating the words he uttered at his death: "it's so hard to die."
9. King's Tavern: Haunted Upper Rooms?
The old King's Tavern is still standing in Natchez, Mississippi. This was a frequent hangout of several unsavory characters during the heyday of the Natchez Trace.
No one has used the upstairs bed for many, many years, yet when you run your hand just a few inches above it, many people report feeling warm spots on it, as if someone had just been lying there.
A 16-year-old girl named Madeline was a server at the tavern. She was a beautiful, engaging young woman who caught the attention of the owner, Richard King. Though he was married, Richard seduced Madeline, who soon became his mistress.
The stately Mrs. King found out about their illicit affair and hired some thugs from the Natchez Under-the-Hill to stab her (or she may have killed Madeline herself). Regardless, Madeline was made to disappear without a trace. While she didn't get a cement kimono or go to sleep with the fishes, Mrs. King (or the men who killed her) took Madeline's body and bricked her up in the chimney wall in the main room of the tavern to hide this evil deed.
The Evil Deeds Are Discovered
During the 1930s, King’s Tavern was owned by the Portsmouth family. Renovations were needed to shore up the building. While repairing the chimney and fireplace in the main room of the tavern, three mummified bodies were found: one girl and two men.
One of them is believed to be Madeline. The murder weapon, a dagger, was found in another fireplace in another room.
Many theories abound as to the identities of these two men. Some include:
- Slaves, servants, or tavern guests who annoyed Mrs. King in some manner, prompting her to kill them.
- Boatmen or travelers killed by the same men who killed Madeline around the same time.
Although the bodies found in the chimney wall were respectfully reburied properly, this alarming discovery awakened some entities, as well as other restless spirits who had been quiet up to this point in time but became active because of the renovations.
Shadowy forms have been seen passing right through the stairways, and the fireplace where the bodies were found emits heat as if it had been burning wood, yet the fireplace is never used by the living.
The mischievous entity of the murdered mistress, known as Madeline, haunts the building. A woman's footprints can be seen on freshly mopped floors. Imagine the fright she gave one employee when he saw her footprints coming toward him across the wet floor! An apparition of a young woman has appeared in front of both patrons and staff. Madeline likes to play jokes on the staff and visitors. For example, she knocks jars off shelves, pours water from the ceiling, and makes chairs rock. Hard-to-open doors will suddenly open by themselves. When a staff member calls her name, the door shuts again by itself. She turns faucets and lights on and off.
A baby (brutally murdered in a fit of rage by Big Harpe) still cries from the attic room on occasion.
An entity of a man with a top hat who has been described as sinister has appeared to the living. He could be a murder victim or perhaps is one of the outlaws himself. The waiters and waitresses feel that he has an evil persona. Perhaps he is just angry about being killed. He is also seen wearing a dark jacket, pants, and a black-tie string. Sometimes he appears behind people getting their pictures taken by the fireplace where the bodies were found.
Dishes have been thrown around in an aggressive manner, and in the mirror in one of the upstairs bedrooms, the face of a man is sometimes seen.
10. The Devil's Punchbowl and John Hare's Ghost Horse
"The large punch bowl is one of nature's freaks. No scientist has ever fully explained it, nor has any plausible theory or reason ever been advanced for its presence. But all who view this wonder spot, with its weird and sinister beauty, feel it has a secret connection to the Mississippi River."
—Edith Wyatt Moore, 1940. Printed in the Jackson Daily News, 1970
Some theorize that hidden treasure is buried there in huge containers, and much digging for piratical gold has taken place in the basin of the Devil's Punch Bowl. The actual site of the Devil's Punch Bowl is slightly off the current Natchez Trace, closer to the Mississippi River. It is now privately owned property. There is a Novel written by the same name, loosely based on some of the legends of the Devil's Punch Bowl.
One of the most famous criminals to steal and kill on the Natchez Trace was Joseph Thompson Hare. He has been forever linked to the area because his ghost reportedly haunts the Devil's Punch Bowl. The Punch Bowl is a huge depression in the earth that can be found overlooking the Mississippi River. The round-shaped area is considered a geological anomaly, and no explanation has ever been found as to why it exists. Over the years, it has been a much-visited site by treasure hunters, as brigands like Hare were said to have secreted much of their stolen loot in the bowl.
Hare is believed to be responsible for murdering over 100 people along the trace. He claimed to see a phantom white horse. Natchez Under-the-Hill was an old riverbank area that was home to many outlaws who attacked travelers on the trace, including Hare. Hare was literate and kept a journal.
Hare wrote about long processions of slaves being taken south "like a troop of wearied pilgrims" so slow and tattered that the train had a sad and funereal appearance.
Hare's account of the white ghost horse:
"I saw standing right across the road, a beautiful white horse, as white as snow; his ears stood straight forward and his figure was very beautiful. When I approached him and got within six feet of him, he disappeared in an instant."
Years after his vision of the beautiful white horse, he felt it was sent by God to make him Repent, which he never did. Hare became a terror on the Natchez Trace, basing himself out of New Orleans and working as far north as Kentucky. He was a brutal and cruel man, and legend has it that he once ordered his men to bury alive his unfaithful mistress. It was said that she was only allowed to die wearing the jewels that he had given her. She was entombed somewhere in the Devil's Punch Bowl, and the stories say that his ghost sometimes appears and offers her gold to anyone who will dig up her body and move it to a proper grave. So far, no one has ever taken her up on it. Hare's "laughing" ghost is often encountered along the trace with an apparition of his unfaithful mistress.
The Devil's Punch Bowl sheltered the leaders and four of the most infamous gangs in bandit history. Those terrible men, the Harpes, the elegant Hare, dandy, fearsome fighter and blackhearted thief, the craven, wolfish Mason, and the proud fantastic Murrel with the flat pale glance of a killer, last and most daring of the old-time outlaws who preyed on the Natchez Trace.
Ghosts All Up and Down the Trace
Riding with some friends on the Trace in broad daylight, I took this random shot, along with some others, just for fun. This one really spooks me. Can you see a ghostly figure? Slightly above and right of center, it looks to me as if a young girl or boy is hovering in the trees. I can just make out a pouting expression. I showed this picture to a couple of friends, and each of them saw a different ghostly figure that I could not really see.
This is just one bit of evidence, that there are many more ghosts of the Natchez Trace that have been discovered or written about. I want to know more! I vow to come back and add to this article and to keep up my research.
For now, I am going to name this one "Lost Child."
Here Are the Juicy Resources
- Map of Northern Section of the Trace
Near Witch Dance
- Southpoint States
About the Windsor Ruins
- Ghost Town of Rodney
Mississippi Guide Ghost Town of Rodney - Mississippi The "Almost" Capital of Mississippi The most famous story about Rodney comes from the Civil War....
- THE DEATH OF MERIWETHER LEWIS -- SUICIDE OR MURDER?
THE DEATH OF MERIWETHER LEWIS Did the Famed Explorer Die by His Own Hand -- or Was He Murdered? In September 1806, the Lewis and Clark Expedition returned to St. Louis after an absence of two years and four months. The men had crossed more than 6,000
- Explore Southern History
Mount Locust, located atop a hill at the 15.5 mile marker of the Natchez Trace Parkway, is one of the most important historic sites along the 444 mile long National Park area.
Do share, if you dare!
Sarah on January 03, 2016:
Saw an "orb" on natchez trace parkway tonight !! Never seen anything like it and was thankful my husband and son saw it too or I would have thought I was seeing things !! It was around 7 pm and it was very dark and deserted . We were driving extra careful because of deer . Out of no where it came from the left side of my van across the road in front of me. It was perfectly round about a bit bigger than a coconut and it glowed bright .
Karen Kay (author) from Jackson, MS on November 04, 2014:
Thanks so much Shyron! Back when I was with Squidoo, they really encouraged anything spooky or halloween related. I had fun with this one because it was about my home area. I really appreciate your kind words!
Shyron E Shenko from Texas on November 04, 2014:
Karen, welcome to HP, I am so glad you became a hubber. This is very interesting and I have heard some of the tales, my only experence with the paranormal was in California, but I heard many tales in Alabama. Most people I know really believed the stories.
Thumbs-up, useful and interesting and shared.
I tried to pin this to Awesome HubPages but seem to have lost the connection.
Blessings to you my friend.
yayas on November 14, 2013:
Thanks for the very interesting information about the area of Natchez. My grampa' once owned a plantation in the area, but I only found out about it recently. I would so love to visit that area an' learn more, firsthand, although the chances of that happening are pro'lly zero to none. I truly enjoyed your inspiring an' very descriptive narrative. It makes my mama's childhood stories a bit more real. Thanks, again. :)
cdevries on September 19, 2012:
A wonderfully detailed lens, full of fascinating stories - thanks!
Leah J. Hileman from East Berlin, PA, USA on September 14, 2012:
Cool lens, very interesting lore.
rachelscott on September 13, 2012:
I love to know about ghost and i always wanted to be a ghost hunter like in my favorite cartoon Scooby Doo.
anonymous on August 23, 2012:
Great job writing about my favorite topic--ghost stories--at my favorite place, the Natchez Trace. For many years I lived across the road from the Trace's northern terminus, and I've made several end-to-end trips on the Trace. What a beautiful, historic, and ghostly place! I'm hoping for my next book project to be a collection of weird and ghostly tales from the Trace, and your article sure got me in the mood for it! Thanks again
anonymous on June 18, 2012:
Yes, I must say there is something fascinating about the history of the Natchez Trace and the town of Natchez as well! I always travel to Natchez by the Trace and back by the Trace late at night sometimes. Wanted to stay overnight at the famous old post house "Kings Tavern" restaurant, but I understand it is closed now. Wonderful ghost story about the restaurant. Rocky Springs is an interesting place to stop on the way to Natchez. Visit the Church up on the hill at Rocky Springs and sign the guest book.
Karen from U.S. on June 09, 2012:
Oooh, I'd love to visit the Natchez Trace and see if I come across any ghostly activity! I've only really heard about the Natchez Trace from a couple of Nevada Barr books I've read, and she talks about how thick and dense the woods are....perfect for hiding spooky things!
Karen Kay (author) from Jackson, MS on October 11, 2011:
@David Stone1: Haha! I drive on it every day! But I don't recommend traveling it alone at night on the lonely stretches far from towns... lol
David Stone from New York City on October 11, 2011:
I've always been interested in the Trace and wanted to explore it. Now, I'm not sure I dare. May be safer with books.
jeffersonline on September 12, 2011:
Well you work hard to put together a good lens, and then you find one as good as this and suddenly you're back on the start line! Great information, Great Lens. Back to the drawing board for me!
yayas on August 31, 2011:
Eeewww! Creepy! Natchez is the town where my gramma' shot the ghost. I've heard stories of the Natchez Trace, but I was somehow protected from believing any of it was real. This sounds like a good place to visit... online an' in books. I don't think I wanna' ever go there, though.
anaamhussain on July 28, 2011:
Absolutely fantastic!!!!..I love mysteries and Your lens is jam-packed with them!!!
Karen Kay (author) from Jackson, MS on June 06, 2011:
@anonymous: That sounds pretty scary!
anonymous on June 06, 2011:
anonymous on June 06, 2011:
hey next time yall come down to rodney ill give u a real tour. my family is from there i attended alcorn state university. let somebody from the area show u some real hidden ntreasures thru our hills and hollows
CelinaHamm on May 26, 2011:
Wow, this is absolutely fantastic. Love ghost stories and you have put together some great ones.
JeremiahStanghini on February 18, 2011:
Wow, pretty interesting stuff here!
With Love and Gratitude,
Cynthia Sylvestermouse from United States on January 06, 2011:
Fabulously scary! LOL! Congratulations on being listed on the 2010 Giant Squid Showcase!
Sherry Venegas from La Verne, CA on December 29, 2010:
KimGiancaterino on December 29, 2010:
Congratulations ... have a happy new year!
Spook LM on December 29, 2010:
Fascinating. Congratulations and all the best in 2011.
Indigo Janson from UK on December 29, 2010:
Thanks for such a fantastic, spooky lens! Congratulations on being featured on the 2010 Giant Squid Showcase!
anonymous on December 28, 2010:
I knew this was a winner the first time I read it...congrats on being on the 2010 Giant Squid Showcase Best of List! Well deserved!
anonymous on December 28, 2010:
Congratulations on being on the 2010 Giant Squid Showcase Best of List! What a wonderful way to go into the new year! I must say, this may not have been the lens to come to just before going to bed, yikes! Wonderfully done!
Mona from Iowa on December 28, 2010:
Congratulations on being one of the 45 on the Best of 2010 Squidlist!
anonymous on December 28, 2010:
Congratulations for being included in The 2010 Giant Squid Showcase by the SquidTeam! How cool is that! Happy New Year, Squidhugs from Kathy
greenerme on December 28, 2010: