Houses are living things. I’ve said it before. They see, hear and breathe. Sometimes, I think, they breathe in what we put into them and when they exhale, they put out whatever they took in to begin with only now it has changed into something new, be it an echo of happiness or silent screams of sorrow. Sometimes, I feel, they take in something awful and then breathe out something truly hellish. This toxic cloud of negative energy-or whatever etheric matter is made of- moves, slinking from room to room, drifting on the edges of our consciousness until it can feel inside of our minds, taking on twisted forms and degenerate shadows plucked from our fears and worries. Or maybe, just maybe, could it be that something once lived that was so vile, so cruel and inhumane, that the very fabric of whatever lays beyond this life rejects it and it becomes trapped here, with us, walking side by side, waiting to prey again?
Such could be the place with a location in Kingsport, Tennessee.
Sitting on the very banks of the Holston River, high on a hill, sits a majestic manor home with red bricks, dark shutters and breath-taking thirty-foot high Doric columns that line the front porch, giving anyone who stands on that porch a commanding view of the river and the lands beyond. At three stories tall, this stately home is in fact, the source of all of Kingsport or what would be the town later on. Its intricate ties to our home city make it a source of great pride and haunting creeping dread for those that live near it. Some of us bear the scars quite literally from the house and its long and sordid history. It even has a name, a name pulled from the works of Sir Walter Scott: Rotherwood. Rotherwood, as so many places like it began, did not begin with malice or evil but its fate and often those who are tied to it, was doomed the moment the first brick was laid.
In the later part of the 18th century, a young man named Fredrick Ross and his family inherited a large parcel of land of several hundred acres along the north and south forks of the Holston River. The land ran from Bay’s Mountain to almost the Virginia border. Ross and his family were very wealthy and were respected in the area. Ross himself would later go on to lay out the town of King’s Port/Rossville, which obviously later became the Kingsport we know today. Like most wealthy families in the south at the time, Ross did own slaves. He also had several indentured white servants as well but he was not known to be a cruel man. He treated his slaves well, considering the circumstances of the immorality of the institution of slavery. Unlike many southern slave owners, he did not engage in wanton cruelty.
In 1818, the work on the majestic plantation house that was Rotherwood was finished. Taking the name from Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, the house and grounds were truly the showplace and entertainment center of the entire region. With curved driveways, column lined porches, hanging floral gardens, and even a pool on the roof, Rotherwood was every bit the dream home of the Ross family. Ross had several children but everyone remembers his daughter Rowena the best. With her raven hair and fair complexion, she was considered to be the most beautiful creature in the entire area and she had an education and manners to back it up. Well-liked and kind to everyone she met, slaves included, Rowena had many young men chasing after her hand in marriage but there was only one gentleman that caught her affections and held them close.
Ross himself was beyond happy with his daughter’s choice and went on to build another Rotherwood across the river from the main house for his daughter and her soon to be family. He relished the idea of being a grandfather and the new house was completed. It was an exact replica of Rotherwood itself but instead of red brick, the entire house was done entirely in white. Unfortunately, it never was lived in because it burned to the ground not long after it was completed. Perhaps that was an omen of things to come. Perhaps not but what did happen next was nothing short of devastating. Perhaps this event on a day of joy was what started the downward spiral of Rotherwood into darkness.
On her wedding day, Rowena and her family and the groom and his family had gathered before the ceremony, laughing and rejoicing. The groom and several of his friends decided to try their hand at fishing before he married his beaming wife to be. Taking a small boat out onto the Holston, the men were in plain sight of the house and as Rowena watched, her life changed and fate dealt her a cruel hand.
The Holston River is notorious for its dangerous currents and eddies and somehow, the boat the men were in capsized, spilling them into its icy depths. Everyone on shore watched in horror as the men floundered in the water, the surging currents pulling them down. Miraculously, three of the four men made it back to shore but to Rowena’s devastation, her true love did not surface again. In fact, his body was never recovered.
Rowena was devastated by his loss and fell into a deep depression. The once vibrant beautiful young woman became a virtual recluse, secluding herself away in her third floor bedroom, looking out of her window at the river, silently mourning her lost life and love.
For the next two years, Rowena saw no one but gradually began to come out again, socializing in small bursts until a man happened to cross her path and again, she felt the pull of love calling to her. This rich young man was from Knoxville and while he was not her first true love, she was willing to try again. She was able to marry this man. Fate however struck once again, another shock wave of grief slamming into her as her new husband died not long after their wedding vows from yellow fever. Once again, Rowena fell into a depression and this time, it did not break for more than a decade.
One last time, Rowena tried to be happy and she did marry again and this time, her life seemed to be on the right track. She even had a daughter with her new husband and for six years, she finally seemed to find happiness but something was just never quite right. It is unknown how or why but what is known is how her story finally came to its tragic end. What is known is this. During a vacation back at Rotherwood to see her father, Rowena said that she had seen the ghost of her first love, her true love. She had said that she had heard his ghostly voice calling to her and had seen his pale white hand reach out from the dark waters of the Holston and beckon to her.
That night, she slipped into her wedding gown, the garment flowing behind her like angel’s white wings as she made her way silently outside late at night, barefoot, following the trail to the shores of the river before slowly and calmly wading into the water, walking until the water was up to her neck and finally, she vanished below the surface, taking her own life.
From that point the fate of Rotherwood was doomed to be a bleak one. The once happy Fredrick Ross was himself in a deep depression over the loss of his daughter and in the years leading up to the Civil War, he made several business decisions that seemed to backfire, huge losses and failed investments that cost him dearly. His overseer, Joshua Phipps, was also his bookkeeper. Strangely, he never seemed to understand why his employer’s ventures were failing.
Ross saw only one way out of the failing plantation and made a heart breaking decision. He sold Rotherwood plantation to the only person that he knew could afford it and the losses it had taken: Joshua Phipps. Before he completed the sale, however, Ross made one decision that was a harbinger of the hell to come. He freed as many of his slaves as he could before transferring ownership to Phipps. These freed slaves settled further away from Rotherwood into Hawkins County in a place named Zion Hill. Among those that were freed were the ancestors of the future singer and actress, Diana Ross, whose family had taken the Ross family name as their own because Ross himself was a kind man. Ross had freed the slaves because he knew what was coming, the storm that was incarnate in a man named Joshua Phipps. Ross left his once happy manor and grounds and the remaining slaves he could not free in the hands of Phipps and left by carriage to his fate. He would die years later as a broken man.
Phipps, on the other hand, would have a short but unforgettable tenure as lord and master of Rotherwood plantation.
Even before his death, Phipps was known in his day for his malice, his cruelty and his irritable nature. The only thing that held him in check as overseer of the slaves and grounds was the hand of his employer, Ross. Now that Ross was out of the picture, Phipps had total control of the manor and the slaves and it is not hyperbole to say that hell was unleashed the day he took control.
Rotherwood began to change; slave cells were added inside the basement with dirt walls, dirt floors and no windows with only one opening. The “field slaves” were forced to huddle into the small room at night. Iron bars were set into the one opening with no glass or protection from the elements. On the third floor, a whipping post was built into the walls.
Virgealia “Jill” Ellis of Kingsport spoke to the Douglass Alumni Blog about her experiences working at the plantation as a child and the treatment her family had experienced while under Phipps’ cruel hand.
(Virgealia “Mama Jill” Ellis)
“I grew up on the 2,500 or so more acres of Rotherwood land. My mother, Inez Looney was the cook and my father, James Looney, was the chauffeur, the butler and the mansion maitre’d. As a child, I had to go into this area [the slave cells] almost every day because the food mother canned was stored in the basement and the laundry facility was also in this area. The stench was embedded in the ground—the darkness and the dampness was sometimes overpowering. One could imagine hearing the moaning, the wailing, the crying of the slaves, their misery and despair. If a slave was maimed, he was shot like an animal because he was of no more use. In the front room of the third floor facing the river, was the whipping post. Slaves were shackled to the post to be whipped. The blood stains are still embedded into the wood floors of that room…during days of heavy moisture, the wood would expand and the blood stains would show up again…” (Douglass Riverview News and Current Events, 2016).
Phipps built the post into the house because he enjoyed hearing his slaves scream. In fact, he was known to be so vicious with them, to beat them so furiously, that neighboring plantations and landowners reported hearing the screams of the slaves echoing off of the mountains as Phipps would torture them. Astoundingly, Phipps was not alone in his evil. He had a mistress on the side (his wife knew about it and was too scared and powerless to stop him) who was a slave herself, a half black woman who was reported to be as cruel to her fellow slaves if not crueler than Phipps himself was.
His evil did not stop at the slaves and his treatment of them. Phipps was just as cruel with his own family and had a strange request about his death. As recounted by a former slave in October of 1975, a woman named Aunt Vic Phipps told Edward Stewart in article about Rotherwood just how far his evil went. Aunt Vic was a slave before the Civil War and she told Stewart about hiding in the reeds and ditches so when slave traders would come, she would not be sold away from her mother. Aunt Vic told Stewart that Phipps was often overheard stating that when he died, he wanted to be buried standing up on the top of the hill at Rotherwood, so he could always be looking down into the bottoms and see the slaves working. (Kingsport Times, 1975).
(Aunt Vic Phipps).
Phipps had a daughter, Pricilla, who had fallen in love with a young man, a farm hand. The Civil War had struck and her young suitor was called off to battle. Phipps hated the young man and had him murdered in action, telling his daughter what he did and why he did it. Pricilla herself died from depression and grief at the age of twenty, a widow. There was a short battle on the grounds of Rotherwood during the war but as fate would have it, there was one last nightmarish tragedy set to unfold on the grounds, one that would leave its scars, physically and echoes of terror for years to come.
In the summer of 1861, Phipps himself fell ill. The doctors could not explain his condition. He was feverish, almost delusional. Afraid of contagion, the cruel man now debilitated by sickness, was moved out and quarantined into the carriage house. A young slave boy was assigned to keep watch over him and to fan him to keep him cool. For days, Phipps lingered, half awake in fever with labored breathing until finally, death came for Phipps in a way that only a man of his nature could deserve. In fact, no one has an explanation for his death or the circumstances in which it occurred. Can a man be so evil that death itself manifests directly and comes to take him from this world? Maybe.
One sweltering afternoon, the slave boy was fanning Phipps as he was assigned when suddenly Phipps for the first time in days snapped fully awake. His eyes roving wildly in their sockets seem to fixate on a point high in the air above and behind the young boy. Turning to see what his master saw the boy himself let out a blood curdling scream of absolute horror.
A sickly buzzing cloud had begun to form in mid-air, wriggling and swarming and it took the boy all of two seconds to realize what it was: hundreds of flies.
The cloud of flies got thicker and thicker until finally the entire cloud itself descended onto Phipps, covering his face, crawling and running all over his his forehead, their tiny hairy legs poking into his open eyes, as they rammed themselves up his nostrils, into his ears and finally down his open screaming mouth. The swarm was so thick that Phipps finally started to suffocate, choking to death on the living buzzing flies. Unrelenting, the flies kept coming as the young boy, scared out of his mind, watched his master quickly go into spasms as his tormentor and owner’s lungs filled with the insects as Phipps finally died with a buzzing death rattle.
Finally regaining his senses, the boy bolted off to the house to get help. When he returned with family and the doctor, Phipps lay dead, his eyes staring up, his mouth slack and frozen on his face was a look of terror.
There wasn’t a fly in sight. They had vanished as though they had never existed at all.
His death was something out of the books of hell but Joshua Phipps was not to be gotten rid of so easily. His funeral, even today, is something of legend around locals who’s great-great grandparents were there and who passed the story down to their descendants. One such descendant, folklorist and historian Dr. Nancy Acuff, personally confirmed that what is about to be typed was true, as told to her from the first person account of her great great grandfather who was present at the event and told her father and then to her.
The funeral of the most hated man in Kingsport was more of a social event of the summer than the somber occasion it should have been, though I do have to wonder just how upset Phipps’s wife and remaining family were, but that’s neither here or there.
The funeral casket was to be pulled by two large horses, up and around to the cemetery plots on the grounds. During the funeral, it seemed that a storm was coming the wind picking up the skirts and clothing of those around and making the black covering on the casket move ever so slightly, just enough to make one wonder if the man himself were really dead.
As the procession up the hill began, the two horses began to struggle, digging deep furrows into the earth, as though the simple cart and casket were too heavy for them to budge. Unable to move the casket, two more horses were attached and slowly, the hearse began to move again, each horse straining to make the wheels turn with its unnatural weight. Overhead the sky began to grow from a promise of rain into a churning sky as thunder began to snarl. Just before they reached the cemetery, a bolt of lightning snapped down out of the black clouds, cutting a tree in two, knocking the trunk violently across the path, blocking the road. The onlookers were worried and began to mutter about evil and God as the pallbearers simply picked up the casket and carried it to the open grave side where the pastor stood waiting to lay the man inside to rest.
As the pastor began to give Phipps his final words, the river below the gathering began to bubble and churn, as if it were boiling, the currents moving so fast the water itself was muddy. The thunder above grew worse and a movement drew the eyes of the crowd.
The casket, under its dark cloth, was moving.
It was vibrating, as though something inside wanted out, badly. They heard the scrabbling of what sounded like claws against wood and with a roar, a gigantic black dog blasted out of the casket, bolting out from under the black cloth as the attendants screamed in terror. The dog snarled at them with its gleaming eyes before bolting off across the grounds and vanishing into the woods.
The casket itself was unharmed. It seemed to be an impossibility. Shaken and now thoroughly scared, the onlookers rushed the pastor who himself was shaken ashen white. Finishing the rites, Phipps’s coffin was hastily buried and as the onlookers moved to go back down the hill, the first drops of ice cold rain began to fall. There was another sound, some would swear to later to their children and neighbors, a sound that mingled with the thunder: the sound of laughter and they said the voice belonged to Joshua Phipps.
Two weeks later, Rotherwood was still moving on, though without one of its cruelest taskmasters, it was somewhat quieter. The remaining family began to whisper of things moving in the shadows of the house, of hearing animal feet running through the hallways and most horrifying of all, that the laughter and sound of Joshua Phipps stalking his way around the home as he would appear at night at the foot of the bed and yank the bed clothes off, keeping anyone from sleeping. But it wasn’t only the family that had these troubles. The slaves were coming in droves to the point of a riot to claim that the ghost of Joshua Phipps had risen from the grave along with a giant black dog to torment them every night. Fed up with such reports, the new overseers and the family to calm their own fears agreed that Phipps’s grave would be dug up to prove once and for all that the man was truly dead.
Opening the grave turned out to offer more mysteries and terror than anyone imagined. The coffin was still there and once opened, it was empty, all but a few large black animal hairs. Stunned, no one knew what had become of his body as the dirt on the grave had not been disturbed. Not longer after, violence struck Rotherwood again as the slaves, unable to bear the torment from their unseen attackers, revolted, destroying Phipps’s headstone, desecrating his grave and finally, at last, killing their last torturer, Phipps’s equally cruel mistress, the mulatto woman. They beat her to death and what happened to her body is unknown.
Rotherwood itself was purchased by the US government in 1940, and Mrs. Ellis and her family moved away to North Carolina. Years later, Mrs. Ellis would resettle in Kingsport and share her story. But it wasn’t the end of Rotherwood. Passing through several owners, the current owner is a prominent OBGYN at the local medical campus. She began to renovate and restore the home to its former glory. She has fully succeeded in her goal, turning her home into a stunning memorial to the past as well as once again giving Rotherwood an inhabitant to call it home. Even in modern times, however, Rotherwood still holds darkness in its heart.
During the renovations, the owner and her friend were both at the house as workmen were working on plumbing and wiring in the basement, where the former slave cells were located. One of the workman claimed that his partner suddenly looked up from his work and froze in place, his skin going white and his eyes widening like a deer in headlights. Without preamble, his partner began to scream and run, fleeing up the stairs as if he was running for his life. Astounded, the owner, her friend and the workman watched as the man leaped into the work van, spun gravel out and fled, leaving his tools, and his partner and a stunned owner behind.
Later, the man was calm enough to tell everyone what had happened. He said he had been working and he had looked up when he felt someone staring at him. When he did, he saw a man materialize out of the wall, dressed in a dark suit. Next to him was a gigantic black dog with glowing red eyes, its mouth open, fangs exposed, snarling deep in its throat. The man had looked him, and grinned a sadistic smile and pointed at him. Instantly the dog had leapt for his throat and that’s why he ran, because the dog that no one else could see was chasing him down like a rabbit. He said the dog followed him up out of the basement, to the van and even a little bit down the road before vanishing into thin air. The workman said he would never set a foot on the property again and he never did.
This hound of hell and the apparitions of not only Joshua Phipps, but also that of Rowena Ross, Pricilla and the spirits of slaves murdered on the grounds are said to wander the property. Most of them are harmless, save Phipps and his hound of hell. During thunderstorms, one can hear the hound baying, almost screaming and Phipps is there, unseen, laughing his cruel laugh.
Rotherwood, once a beautiful and happy home was left to die in darkness only to be reborn as a home again, but this time, scarred for what it had breathed in over the years it had been used as both a refuge and a hellish nightmare come to life. What it breathed out was worse than any ghost but rather a monster that still makes local people uneasy about it and the Phipps surname.
There is one last anecdote that I was told by Dr. Acuff years ago when we investigated another local haunted place called Sensabaugh Tunnel (mentioned on this blog). We were standing outside of a river culvert tunnel, often called the Minor Tunnel by local enthusiasts. Sensabaugh Tunnel itself is not haunted and has no connection to Rotherwood but the minor tunnel or rather the land it was built on does and the connection is one drawn in blood.
Back when Rotherwood was still a working plantation, there was a movement locally to help escaped slaves get to Canada as part of the Underground Railroad. Escaped slaves would move under the cover of night and make their way down what is now Big Elm Road, right next to the Holston River. They would hide in the natural enclosed valley that is where the minor tunnel would later be built and wait on a ferryman to come and take them across the river so they could continue their journey to freedom.
One evening, a slave and his wife and three children had escaped a local plantation and had nearly made it to the hiding spot when the slave owner who had discovered them missing finally cornered them on horseback. Despite pleading for their lives, the slave owner brutally murdered them all, shooting the husband and wife plus her two other children. The youngest child was a baby and it lay screaming, covered in blood in its mother’s arms, the bullet having missed it barely. The slave owner coldly picked up the child and slung it over and over into the rocks lining the valley, smashing its brains out and tossing its body aside.
Many in Kingsport know the story or at least the rumors. They know that something bad happened there but Dr. Acuff told me the full story with the understanding that I never reveal the slave owner’s name because his family still lives in the area and are deeply embarrassed about what their ancestor did. I know this man’s identity and I feel justice was eventually served but his connection to Rotherwood will never be undone, nor will his deeds.
I drive past Rotherwood once in a while. I see it sitting on top of that hill, its windows looking out on the river down below. I know the secrets inside of its walls and now, dear reader, so do you, for better or worse. We should be always be mindful of what we put into a house or anywhere really. They breathe. They exhale. They see. They wait. Sometimes what they breathe out or give birth to after we are gone, isn’t what we put into them but rather a twisted mutation, an aberration, an abomination of our own warped natures that will echo forever within the halls of the damned.
– Anthony Justus, March 3, 2016.