Monday, April 4, 2011

King's Tavern at Haunted Natchez: The Truth Revealed

King's Tavern at Haunted Natchez: The Truth Revealed
by Mike Chapman

From the deep pine forests and hills of north Mississippi to the sun-washed beaches along the Gulf of Mexico, Mississippi is home to many haunted sites.  I am privileged to have been born and raised in the state’s richest area of haunted locations in the southwest portion of the Magnolia State, in the old river town of Natchez.  Many people don’t know this, but Natchez is the oldest settlement on the Big Muddy, the mighty Mississippi River.  Sitting high atop three-hundred foot loess bluffs overlooking the river, it is older than New Orleans, Vicksburg, Memphis and St. Louis.  First explored by LaSalle around 1682, then settled permanently by the French in 1716 when they built Fort Rosalie des Natchez, the town has been under the flags of no less than five different countries.  Natchez was the home of the Natchez Indians, with three huge villages in full glory when the French began to arrive in force.  The tribe was virtually wiped out by the French after the uprising on November 28, 1729.  Emerald Mound, just outside of Natchez, is the third largest Indian mound in the United States, and was built by the predecessors of the Natchez Indians.  Washington, Mississippi, a small village just outside of Natchez, was Mississippi’s territorial capital and then became the capital of the state of Mississippi before it was eventually moved to Jackson.  Natchez is a terminus of the 444 mile-long Natchez Trace Parkway, with Nashville on the other end.  The Trace served as an overland route of flat-boaters returning north after floating their goods down the rivers to New Orleans. 

As the town “perched on the edge of the frontier” in what was known as the Old Southwest, Natchez has a truly unique history and has seemingly always had a polyglot of citizenry.  Natchez has many interesting periods and subjects in its history, including Indians, French settlers, and immigrants from Germany and Ireland.  Natchez has been home to refugees escaping west from the Revolutionary War, flat-boaters and “Kaintucks” from the Ohio River valley.  We’ve had periods of outlaws and bandits along the Trace, the king-cotton era of plantations and slaves from Africa, the Civil War and Reconstruction era – and all of that is before we even get to the twentieth century!  The twentieth century in Natchez also saw much rich history, with such events as the tragic Rhythm Club fire, the Goat Castle murder, the Old County Jail with its jazz musician hangman, and the establishment of one of the most intriguing and beautiful cemeteries in all of Mississippi.  At one time, Natchez boasted more millionaires than any other city in America except for New York City.  It has been the backdrop of many Hollywood movies, and is truly one of the most unique places in the entire South. 

Today, the spring pilgrimage in Natchez draws visitors from literally all over the world.  These visitors come to tour the dozens and dozens of antebellum (pre-civil war) mansions on display, replete with Spanish moss dangling from the oak trees and hostesses in full costume.  With all due respect to Vicksburg, Natchez is the place to sip on a mint julep, munch on fresh Mississippi grown catfish and hush-puppies, and watch the barges roll by on the Mississippi.  Due to its isolated location, Natchez has always been somewhat estranged and cut-off from the rest of the State.  As a result, Natchez and its citizens have developed its own identity, traveling a path of its own, often not the path chosen by the rest of the State.  It views itself as a very different Mississippi town.  Historian William C. Davis, in his A Way Through the Wilderness which I consider to be by far the best work on Natchez, wrote “In the past four decades (1760-1800, which includes the beginnings of King’s Tavern) Natchez had been French, then British, then Spanish, and now at last American.  No wonder Natcheans felt confused and paid allegiance chiefly to themselves and their own individual interests.”  Most other Mississippians do not realize this sentiment of self-allegiance and uniqueness continues in Natchez to a fair  degree even today. Still, Natchez is not easily accessible and lies off the beaten path.  Natchez is hardly a convenient side-stop located along a major thoroughfare.  It remains almost always a destination unto itself. Samuel Clemens, writer of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, once said of Natchez, “The town of Natchez is beautifully situated on one of those high spots.  The contrast that its bright green hill forms with the dismal line of black forest that stretches on every side, the abundant growth of the pawpaw, palmetto and orange, the copious variety of sweet-scented flowers that flourish there, all make it appear like an oasis in the desert.”

So, with the kind of “ancient” history that began at Natchez long before even the white man came, one can well imagine the potential for haunted sites that must be present here – and in this regard Natchez certainly does not disappoint.  Ghost writer Dr. Alan Brown, of Meridian, recently published his book Haunted Natchez in which he summarizes many of Natchez’ most well-known sites.  In this article, I’d like to focus on the site that many perceive to be the “crown-jewel” of Natchez’ haunted locations and that is King’s Tavern, the oldest structure in Natchez. When one approaches the history of King’s Tavern, whether it is reading its story online or the official historical marker on the grounds of the tavern itself, one is hard-pressed to find factual information.  I would even go so far as to say that it is virtually impossible to find the true history of the tavern unless one digs into the actual archives and records located at the Natchez Historical Society.  We, as the Natchez Area Paranormal Society, did just that.  In October 2010, we launched a full-scale, multi-faceted investigation into King’s Tavern, which culminated in an over-night field investigation with over 10 infrared and full spectrum static cameras and all kinds of sophisticated metering equipment and audio recorders, which occurred on November 27-28.  Much of the historical research was done by me, and P.I.’s Chris Jackson and Summer Stone.  The facts of the origins of the tavern that can be substantiated by historical record are as follows. 

On July 20, 1794, a man named Prosper King petitioned the Spanish governor, who ruled Natchez at the time, for permission to build a house on lot 3 of square 33 - the site where the Tavern now stands.  Almost exactly two years later, on July 21, 1796, the petition was granted to Prosper by the territorial governor Manuel Gayoso de Lemos.  Then, a year and a half later, on January 18, 1798, Prosper sold the property for the mere sum of $50.00 to his brother, Richard King. Whether there was a building on the site at this time is unknown, but in my opinion there was not.  My opinion is based on what follows next in the historical record.  On August 5, 1799, another year and a half after Richard purchased the property; it is recorded in the Minutes of the Court of General Quarter Sessions of the Peace (Adams County Courthouse, Adams County Mississippi, p.78) where Richard King was licensed to operate a public house.  It’s fairly obvious to me as someone who has been in construction for most of my life and a licensed building contractor for the state of Mississippi that Richard King bought the property and began building the tavern.  A year and a half later, when it was about completed, he applied for the license in order to open for business.  The tavern was never constructed or intended to be a private residence.  We know this.  It’s also elementary to see this from its architecture and floor plan.  It was not converted to use from a home to a tavern, but later just the opposite occurred: it was converted from a  tavern to become a residence, but more about that later.  Richard built it from the get-go as a tavern and then applied for the license to operate it as just that: a tavern. From the beginning he saw it as a business opportunity and commercial enterprise.  This makes sense, as it was the literal terminus of the Natchez Trace.  So, in my opinion, the actual date of construction was 1798 - 1799.  The historic marker on the site, which literally states “standing before 1789” is absolutely false.  This independent finding was confirmed recently when I met with historian Mimi Miller of the Natchez Historical Society, and she stated that the Pilgrimage Garden Club, which petitioned the State for the marker in the early 1970’s, got confused because there is an older record of another “King’s Tavern” located in the area where present day Liberty Road meets Cranfield Road.  They mistakenly cited the origin of the other King’s Tavern for the one downtown. When I asked Ms. Miller what her estimation of the date of the tavern was, she stated exactly the same time as we do: 1798-1799.

Later, in the 1820’s, the tavern was converted from a tavern to be a private residence when Elizabeth Postlethwaite’s husband came into ownership. On August 27, 1823, Henry Postlethwaite died of yellow fever.  His widow, Elizabeth, and her eight children moved into the Tavern.  She is credited with converting and enclosing the eastern porches into bedrooms, which today are still enclosed and used for seating for the restaurant when they need the extra space.  The Postlethwaite and Bledsoe families held the ownership of the tavern from 1823 until 1970, an incredible 147 years! During that entire time, it was used as a residence.  Most people do not realize that the famous King’s “Tavern,” in existence now for 212 years, has been a tavern for less than 25% of the time!  In fact, it is actually less than that, because even today it does not operate as a tavern, but merely a restaurant.  The one bedroom it does have, is no longer rented out due to lack of functioning central air conditioning and the reticence of the current owners to worry with the demands of a bed and breakfast.  On July 27, 1860, Elizabeth passed away at the residence.  This is a fact that should be noted by any shrewd observer, especially in light of the later claims of a female presence haunting the place.  In recent years (1970-1971 to be exact), it was purchased, restored and converted back more to its original use – to be a tavern and restaurant (known as The Post House Restaurant) by the Pilgrimage Garden Club of Natchez.  Later, in 1987, they in turn sold the tavern to Yvonne Scott, who in 1988 opened the restaurant as King’s Tavern.  Frankly, it is during the time period of ownership by the Garden Club and Ms. Scott, that the “haunted” stories and myths began to emerge, most notably the infamous story of the ghost named Madeline.

The emergence of the Madeline ghost has been a seminal event for King’s Tavern.  Unfortunately, it is one that I think has been wholly misinterpreted and misrepresented.  The following is a typical “report” on the history of King’s Tavern that dominates the landscape when one attempts to find information on the Tavern.  Much of what is in this history is incorrect, but virtually every single story we have found regarding King’s Tavern keeps repeating the same incorrect information.  I have included it in this report as an example of this constant misreporting of the truth.  The source of the report is listed at the bottom of the entry, which is placed in italics:  

THE KING'S TAVERN - NATCHEZ, MISSISSIPPI: The King's Tavern was built in the year of 1769 and is the oldest building standing in the town of Natchez. This tavern carries the look of most seventeenth century buildings; built with sun-dried bricks, beams that came from scrapped sailing ships originating from New Orleans and barge boards that came from flat river boats once they made their way down the Mississippi and were dismantled. In 1789 a man named Richard King, bought the old house and moved his family into it. He named the building, The King's Tavern, and turned it into an inn and tavern. There is a notorious side to the restaurant, though. In the 1930s, workers were expanding the fireplace and tore out the chimney wall. They found a space behind the wall that contained the skeletal remains of three bodies: two men and one woman. Laying on the floor was a jeweled dagger, which was assumed to have been used in their demise. The woman is thought to have been Madeline, Richard King's mistress. As the story goes, when his wife found out about the affair, she had Madeline killed and bricked into the fireplace in the main dining room. Who the two male skeletons are is anyone's guess... much of the supernatural mischief today is blamed on Madeline, however. Workers report hearing a baby crying in the restaurant - specifically, from rooms that were supposedly empty. The story behind the infant's cry goes back to the 1700s when the building was not only an inn, but also the post office and one of the centers of the city's commerce. A young mother was trying to comfort her fussy infant, when a man named Big Harpe - one of the notorious Harpe brothers - walked over from the bar. She thought that he was going to assist her, but instead, he grabbed the baby by its feet and slammed the infant against the wall. As the distraught mother crumpled to the floor to gather the child's lifeless body, Big Harpe strolled back to the bar and ordered another drink. (Source: Jimmy Smith’s Mississippi Research page- online).

In fairness to Jimmy Smith, he is simply repeating what he has found elsewhere.  I’m not picking on him, as his is only one of dozens and dozens of misrepresentations of the truth. However, that’s just the problem.  As any good researcher knows, one has primary source material, and one has secondary source material.  Most of the time, paranormal researchers go the easy route and grab secondary material they can find online.  Anyone can hack what everybody else is saying with a few keystrokes and a few cut and pastes with a computer mouse.  What separates true professional researchers from the amateurs, is that the true researchers go to the primary source material.  The historical reporting that MSSPI and NAPS does, is to go directly to the primary source materials that are usually in archives and records often buried in a courthouse basement, on library microfiche, in scholarly & well sourced books (that are often rare and out-of-print), dusty, messy newspaper archives, and on historical foundation shelves.  It isn’t easy, in fact it is very time consuming and difficult, but it separates the pros from the pretenders.  True historical reporting is both a science and an art, and takes creativity, resourcefulness, detective work and dogged determination.  As the leader of a paranormal team I will say without reservation that MSSPI’s historical reporting is the best I have ever seen, and I point to them as a standard for my own team, NAPS, to emulate. This is the very thing I point to when I say most paranormal teams are amateurish, because your investigation is only as good as your research, and so if a team is simply going by what they find online for the truth, that says pretty much everything about that team and their findings.  That may sound harsh, but it’s the truth.  What this field needs is good, solid investigators, not another team with a ghost meter and a na├»ve fascination with all the ghost hunter shows on television.  What is particularly offensive to me with the above story and its repetition by anyone and everyone, and that causes my injustice meter to peg out, is the fact that Richard King’s wife is being accused of a particularly diabolical murder, without one single shred of evidence.  She was a living, breathing human being, and her memory is being totally trashed and tarnished without any factual basis.  I note with interest that the stories always say, “The wife of Richard King.”  They never mention her name, because to do so would be to give her personhood.  Well, I’ll give her some dignity, identity and personhood here: her name was Esther.  So for the sake of making a story “sexy” and making people go “ooh and aah” we trash this woman’s memory.  I’m sorry, but the law enforcement officer in me says that to take a folktale story such as what is written above and cite it as history is not only poor evidence, but is careless, reckless and immoral.  Esther King deserves better.  What if she were your ancestor?

From a practical standpoint and law enforcement investigation methodology, I could go on and on about the holes in the alleged story – about the amount of time it would take to brick a body in a fireplace while the body decays and other people can see and smell the evidence; the availability of brick and mortar (not like you could run to Home Depot) – in that time they had to hand-make all their material, and so on.  It is obvious to me this is simply transference of a bunch of stories, one of which is, “The Black Cat,” by Edgar Alan Poe, in which a person is bricked up and entombed behind a wall, for the sake of a interesting “tall-tale.”  Southerners are famous for their “stories” told on front porches, and more often than not they have little to do with the truth.  There are important articles written by noted historians that should be read and their lessons carefully notated by serious paranormal researchers about the nature and culture of folktale stories in the south, and their role in our society as myths.  Furthermore, the story of Big Harpe killing the infant took place in Kentucky.  Big Harpe never stepped foot in Mississippi his entire life. So, the truth needs to be separated from the fiction – the folktales.

The above pseudo history alludes to the popular folktale story that circulates around the Tavern, that in 1932, the remains of three skeletons (one female & two male) and a Spanish dagger were found during remodeling of the building. The bones were “reported” to have been buried in Potters Field of the Natchez City Cemetery, though typically no such “report” exists.  So, the situation that one finds today regarding King’s Tavern, is one in which the “haunting” of Madeline has literally become the identity of the Tavern.  Not it’s architecture, history, age or its place at the terminus of the Natchez Trace.  Rather, it is this alleged Madeline that is said to be haunting the environs that supposedly make King’s Tavern so interesting and such a “draw.”  Not for me.  I personally think that is rather sad given the factual history of the structure and the interesting stories that actually did occur there.  In a local advertisement on television, an actress dressed as "the ghost of Madeline" lures listeners to come and eat a steak.  She slowly fades in and then fades out with an eerie Halloweenish laugh.  Upon entering and being seated in the restaurant, patrons are given a laminated National Enquirer story about some hack reporter’s experiences there.  It is in all of this context that our team, the Natchez Area Paranormal Society, began a very extensive investigation into many different aspects of the Tavern, one of which was to turn every stone and follow every possible lead to see if there is one shred of evidence to support the story of human remains being found there. After extensive searches of all kinds of records, including recruiting the help of the former Director of the Natchez City Cemetery (Don Estes) who also contacted the State Cemetery Archives, there is not one single shred of evidence to support that any human remains were ever uncovered there.  A dagger was found, and we do know that the dagger does exist.  I know that because of photographic evidence showing the dagger and also I was able, after a dogged search, to locate and speak to the owner. However, that is a far cry from finding the dagger buried in the chest of the mummified remains of a young female ensconced in a chimney wall – as some of the stories claim.

If it sounds as if I am totally dismissing the claim of King’s Tavern being haunted, I am not.  I personally believe – rather know - the Tavern has significant paranormal activity.  What I am lending clarification to is the cause of the haunting.  I totally reject the story of Madeline, but I do believe the Tavern is haunted by a female.  In fact, I believe King’s Tavern is haunted by more than one former human.  The first mention on record of any female ghost or spirit at the Tavern is from a Natchez Democrat article dated Saturday, February 23, 1974, in which Thomas Young (who grew up in the Tavern) states, “My mother Hilda died when I was 2 years old and my grandmother has told me many times of the misty figure of the veiled woman in a cloak, with head bowed and hands folded, which stood at the foot of her bed at night after my mother’s death.”  With no historical evidence of there ever being a “Madeline,” it makes far more sense that a Postlethwaite is more likely the true identity of the spirit that haunts the Tavern.  All of the evidence above seems to substantiate this theory.  Recall the fact that the Postlethwaite family lived in the home for 147 years!  What would you place more stock in, a folktale story that is highly impractical and totally unsubstantiated, or historical accounts such as what Thomas Young alludes to?  There is also some interesting photographic evidence that also lends itself to this theory, in which a photograph was taken in the upstairs bathroom a few years ago by a patron of the Tavern, which looks very similar to Elizabeth Postlethwaite!  (Photos above.) Natchez’ foremost professional photographer T.G. McCary, a multi-award winner and known nationwide, examined and studied these photographs on comparison software and concluded that in his opinion, they are the same subject.

Photo at Left:  NAPS Team Leader Mike Chapman conducting an EVP session on the rear porch during our Field Investigation of King's Tavern which began on November 27, 2010.  Photographer Benjie Sanders captured a psychic mist forming in the upper right hand corner.  Many people claim to see a face in the mist.  This mist had no natural cause.

In 2005, Yvonne Scott sold the property to Tom Drinkwater and Shawyn Mars who are the current owners of King’s Tavern.  As I stated earlier, on October 22, 2010, N.A.P.S. launched an extensive, full-blown paranormal investigation into King’s Tavern with interview & historical research phases initiated. Much of what you are reading now is a result of that investigation.  On December 22nd, N.A.P.S. officially closed our first investigation into KT, with a finding of Positive: Class B (significant paranormal activity present); with reservations about some experiences claimed being possibly due to high EMF and some likely due to matrixing (pareidolia) from the high expectations created by advertising of the haunting.  However, none of that is sufficient in our minds to explain all that is happening, and our own investigation revealed plenty of data and evidence on its own (including tactile, olfactory; Class A EVP; Photo and Video; as well as EMF and motion/temperature detection data – many of it cross substantiated).  Furthermore, as has been presented in this article, the investigation uncovered significant errors and misinformation into the history of the Tavern, including dates.  This correction of historical data may be the greatest contribution of this particular investigation.  Lastly, our investigation concluded its finding, but did recommend that the Tavern be investigated further, in the future, to answer specific questions and issues that this investigation raised.  I trust that this report will give you a solid background and clearer insight into the “true” King’s Tavern.  As a team, NAPS looks forward to many more of our own investigations into King’s Tavern in order to fine-tune our findings.  It is our goal as a group to be the foremost experts of King’s Tavern, in all of its aspects.  After all, it’s known as our hometown’s “most haunted site.”



Sources:
Interview & Consultations with Don Estes: former Director of Natchez City Cemetery
Interview & Consultations with Mimi Miller: Natchez Historical Society
Interview with Tom Drinkwater: current co-owner of King’s Tavern
Historic Natchez Foundation: Land Records, Deed & Titles
Mississippi Department of Archives & History
A Way Through the Wilderness: The Natchez Trace and the Civilization of the Southern Frontier, by Davis
A History of Muhlenberg County (Kentucky), by Rothert
The Outlaws of Cave-in-Rock, by Rothert
Natchez Under-the-Hill, by Moore
Natchez: The History and Mystery of the City on the Bluff, by Whitington
The Devil’s Backbone: The Story of the Natchez Trace, by Daniels
Natchez On the Mississippi, by Kane
Archives: Natchez Democrat
The Judge Armstrong Library

© Copyright, 2010, Natchez Area Paranormal Society.  All or parts may be used with permission, we simply require that you cite your source.

1 comment:

  1. I agree 100% that Esther Cobun King and her husband Major Richard King have been vilified in this made up story. I am a 4th great granddaughter of theirs, and have been researching them for years. Records show they never lived at King's Tavern, it was simply another business for him. When he died in 1815, he was one of the wealthiest men in Adams County. It's a bit of a strange coincidence that the year the skeletons & dagger were found, was also the same year of the first pilgrimage in Natchez. Nothing like a good story to sell tickets!!!!!

    ReplyDelete