Knoxville’s First Presbyterian Churchyard has long possessed a reputation as a haunted spot.
As a young newspaper carrier for Capt. William Rule’s Knoxville Chronicle, 11-year-old Adolph Ochs’ shift began at 3:00 am and ended by 7:00 am, which found him traveling to and from the newspaper’s office during the very early morning hours of each day. Over the course of his two years carrying the newspaper (1869-71), his co-workers and family observed that Adolph felt scared to walk past First Presbyterian’s graveyard alone in the dark. More than half a century later, well after he had become the powerhouse editor-publisher behind the success of The New York Times, Ochs’ youthful wariness of First Presbyterian’s grounds remained one of the most locally repeated details about his time in Knoxville. Ochs’ little brother Milton spoke about his memories of Adolph’s fear, as did the boys’ father, Julius Ochs. As well as Thomas Cooper, a Chronicle typesetter under whom Adolph later apprenticed as a printer. Adolph Ochs even personally answered a reporter’s query about graveyard when he came back “home” to Knoxville for Capt. Rule’s funeral in 1929. However, none of these original versions of the story identified a specific ghost or incident as a particular subject of his dread.
After Adolph Ochs’ death in 1935, local memories of his reluctance to pass the churchyard evolved into a legend and that legend eventually grew to identify the spirit which scared him as the ghost of Abner Baker, a young former Confederate soldier who had been hanged by outraged citizens on the night of September 4, 1865, after Baker murdered young Union veteran Will Hall. Abner Baker’s manner of death was indeed terrifying — dragged from jail by a mob carrying him to his certain, violent doom — but Baker’s hanging did not occur at or even near First Presbyterian. The church’s graveyard simply serves as his final resting place.
Though the substantial monument to Baker’s memory was commissioned and set in place at First Presbyterian during the time that young Adolph Ochs was walking past in the darkness each morning, Ochs had lived in Knoxville since he was approximately six years old (ca. 1864-65). He knew Abner Baker’s death occurred in a tree behind the home of Perez Dickinson (on the current site of First Baptist Church) and that his body had been left hanging there for at least a day as a lesson to others who might seek to target loyal citizens. If Adolph believed that Abner’s spirit remained restless, then, like all other Knoxville children of the time, he would have expected to encounter Baker’s ghost in the area of Main Street and Hill Avenue, between the Dickinson house and the old jail, rather than at First Presbyterian, approximately six blocks to the northeast.
If not Abner Baker, then who or what was Adolph Ochs worried he might encounter in the vicinity of First Presbyterian?
One possibility harkens back to a ghost that Knoxvillians considered an old story even before the Civil War. Townspeople had long told each other stories about the spirit of a young girl who was said to wander through the yard of First Presbyterian in the dark of night and, unaware that she was dead, call to passersby for help to get out of the fence surrounding the church grounds. Not only did this legend directly involve First Presbyterian, it also directly connected to a story which was widely spread among the newspapermen of town during Adolph Ochs’ time, about the “big scare” one of his predecessors in the newspaper business experienced at the churchyard only a few years before.
On Thursday, February 12, 1863, an unnamed employee of the Knoxville Register woke up sometime after 2:00 am, bundled himself into his coat, and headed out toward the newspaper office. Because he boarded in the home of John and Elizabeth (White) Bise on the southeast corner of Clinch and Water, right beside First Presbyterian, his route would pass along two sides of the churchyard. Usually, his walk was solitary and silent, but this morning, “a still, small voice” drifted to him “on the breeze” from somewhere inside the church grounds. Looking over, he caught a glimpse of the speaker, a female form, alabaster and ethereal as if bathed in moonlight, even though the night was overcast with clouds. It was her words, though, that struck terror into his heart: “Mister, help me over the fence!”
At this time, the Civil War was almost two years old, and Knoxville was filled with military staff, travelers, refugees from the country, and other strangers to the town. But the unidentified newspaperman’s roots in the city must have run to some depth because he only needed to hear that signature sentence in order to know instantly who he was dealing with: the churchyard’s legendary ghost. “New life and vigor, as if by galvanic force” coursed through his body and he sprinted the rest of the way to the Register’s office, located at the corner of Clinch Ave near the corner of Gay Street, where the East Tennessee History Center is today. There, his co-workers, almost all relative newcomers to town, listened to his story with a significant share of skepticism. They knew that people streamed into Knoxville every day, wasn’t it more likely that a person with no place to stay had found their way into the graveyard?
Even when he had regained his composure, the Bise’s boarder remained convinced that his encounter was neither a coincidence nor a joke. But, just like Adolph Ochs’ co-workers a half decade later, the Register staff were neither inclined to believe nor to let the young man forget. Two paragraphs of that day’s issue of the Register became devoted to that morning’s experience at First Presbyterian, which the young man may have considered unfortunate, but today it feels fortunate that a copy has survived to preserve his story.
Research and writing by Danette Welch, Reference Librarian, Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection