Since this is the time of year many thoughts turn to Halloween and autumn events, it would seem to be appropriate to look into the unexplained happenings, tragedies and legends associated with the first county seat of Rhea County.
From my research on Washington (“Old Washington”), I have found many unexplained events and superstitious occurrences which may or may not have any truth to them. However, these legends and even tragedies have been passed from family members down through the years so that they have become accepted stories. Even though some of these incidences may have been fictional, and others embellished, they are still interesting to think about as we probe a place and its history.
Since Washington’s bedrock was limestone, it was not unusual for the area to have cracks and crevices, along with underground tunnels and passageways that carried water. Legend has it that a mule fell into a cave and was never seen again. Also, a flock of ducks swam into a cave and did not return; while some geese swam into another cave and came out at a large spring approximately a mile away! My question is how do we know those were two different caves, and ducks and geese? But it is fun to think about.
In 1833 a man rode to Love’s Inn in Washington, dismounted, fell unconscious when his feet hit the ground, and died a short time later. One of the local doctors was called to the Inn, but could not do anything for him except pronounce him dead. The stranger had in his saddlebags a large sum of money and a note with the name of F. Wakeman; however, there was nothing else in the way of identification. The county coroner buried the corpse. After the burial, this same doctor who had attended him, acquired assistance and dug the body up, taking it to a cave in Washington. There, the doctor dissected the body and hung the skeleton in that particular cave. Evidently the townspeople found out about this event, and forced the doctor to leave Washington; the cave has been known as “Wakeman’s Cave” since that time! Also, people who were superstitious thought they saw men in grave clothes coming out of the cave and walking around the area.
In addition, there were tragedies which occurred during the “life” of Washington, which were true, but might have changed some as time progressed. The tornado of 1823 destroyed the Court House and Jail, the Church, cotton gin and stores; it also tore the roof off a building where a dinner party was being held. Richard G. Waterhouse and Ralph Locke were caught by the storm as they were coming out of the Court House that day. Both men were wearing high silk hats, which were the fashion for that time in history; both fell to the ground and grabbed whatever bush they could find until the storm was over. The Waterhouse hat was found in the river bottom a mile away, but Locke’s hat was never found. This same storm totally destroyed the cabin of a free black, Ike Rawlings, and blew him into a Hawthorne thicket which was two hundred yards away. Rawlings was a young man, but his head soon became white from the fright. (Could his white hair be explained by lightning striking him, or was his hair white to begin with?) In 1872, another tornado came through Washington, and blew the cupola and roof off the Court House, the end off A. P. Early’s house, the chimney off David Leuty’s hotel, and wrecked the barn of W. G. Allen.
Another tragedy occurred in the Cottonport area where Mr. A. Kelly lived. Kelly had a daughter, Ann, who was evidently strong-willed, and determined to ride her father’s fine race horse. Ann took the horse against her father’s permission. She saddled and mounted him; however, he ran away with her, and Ann was killed when her head struck a tree.
Apparently, there were also a number of murders reported in Washington during its early history. John Wyatt, the jailer, was killed with a club by an insane prisoner in the jail. During the War Between the States, Captain Luther Patterson, the Provost Marshal, was killed in the Court House, and the courier post captured. All the courier posts between Kingston and Chattanooga were captured and several men killed during that same night. Also, in 1870, a man named James Henry ambushed and killed Captain W. E. Colville as he was walking to his house.
It seems that river tragedies were fairly common, since Washington was a large river port, and had plenty of water traffic. When the steamer “Ellen White” was passing Locke’s Ferry, a man named Dixon killed another passenger on the boat. Captain Nicholson, who was in charge of the steamer, had Dixon arrested and placed in the Washington jail in 1849. A number of court trials later, the many juries were not able to decide whether the murder was committed in Rhea or Meigs County. Therefore, after four years of being in prison, and never being found guilty, Dixon was set free! Another river tragedy occurred on the steamer “Lucy Coker” as this boat passed Locke Ferry. A Mrs. Buttram was murdered, and her body thrown into the river; her husband, apparently guilty, jumped off the steamer and swam away in order to escape being captured!
There are two entries in the diary of William Perry Darwin, relating to the steamer “Hugh Martin.” These entries are dated Sunday, August 15, and Monday, August 16, 1875. On Sunday, his entry states, “Rained nearly all day. The steamer, Hugh Martin, Jacob Fritz, Captain, was blown up at the Washington Landing last evening about 5 o’clock, caused by the boilers bursting. Killing the Captain and one passenger and blowing them out in the river and severely wounding 7 negroes and 5 other white men and killing W. R. Henry’s little boy, who was standing on the bank.” The entry for Monday consists of the following: “Cloudy and raining some. I went to the river today to see the wreck. The wounded all taken to town and cared for. Captain Fritz was found this evening floating in the river near Tucker’s Landing, skull broken and limbs broken in several places and 5 deck passengers reported lost.”
These are only a few of the stories, tragedies, legends superstitions, etc. that I have found in my research on the Town of Washington. There are many more to be told as we all delve into the history of a town with a colorful past. This is why we need to study the past in order to live in the present and to prepare for the future.