The “Black Widow” of Hazel Green

She “was a beautiful and charming woman, with auburn hair, dark brown eyes and fair complexion. She was well educated, an aristocrat and had in her veins the blue blood of men who had followed in the steps of Lord Baltimore…” Sounds pretty good, right? Well, reader beware. All that glitters isn’t gold.

The above quotation was taken from a 1933 Huntsville Times article written about a lady known by many names. For now, we’ll just use her maiden name, Elizabeth Dale. Elizabeth was the daughter of Adam Dale, who, at the age of just fourteen, volunteered to fight the Redcoats during the American Revolution and later helped Andy Jackson raise an army to fight the Brits in the War of 1812.

Adam Dale was an early settler of Middle Tennessee. He was one of the first inhabitants of what is now modern-day Dekalb County—then Smith County. There, he built and owned a successful mill before selling his holdings and moving to Maury County a wealthy man.

Adam Dale

Miss Dale, as the author of the 1933 article continued, “loved fine clothes, fine horses, fine furnishings and all of the conveniences made possible by the considerable wealth of her family.” She moved to Columbia with her parents, her husband Rev. Samuel G. Gibbons in tow. In 1816, just a few years after their marriage, Rev. Gibbons filed a will in Smith County that promised his new bride his entire estate, save a $100 bequeath to his sister and a shotgun to his nephew. He was only twenty-three when he wrote the will.

Fourteen years later, the good Reverend died near Centerville in Hickman County, Tennessee. His will had never been updated. The union did not produce children and his wife, Elizabeth, inherited all of his worldly goods, an estate that included slaves and other property. They were married for nearly eighteen years. It would be Elizabeth’s longest relationship.

In October 1831, she took a second husband, Phillip Flanagan. He died five months later in March of 1832.

November 6, 1833, Elizabeth took her third husband, William Alexander Jeffries. Jeffries was a widower who owned a sizeable plantation in Hazel Green, Alabama where he had built a four-room log cabin atop an Indian mound after finding that the best place to look over his land holdings. Legend says Mr. Jeffries had met Elizabeth during her short marriage to Mr. Flanagan and, once he learned Flanagan had passed, Jeffries came to Maury County to court the widow.

This marriage lasted for nearly five years before William Jeffries died in 1838. The union produced two children, one boy and a girl. His aging—yet, still lovely—widow inherited his entire estate. The once-wealthy widow became even wealthier.

And wealthier, still. She soon married again in May 1839 to Robert A. High. As a member of the Alabama House of Representatives, he was included in William Garrett’s Reminiscences of Public Men in Alabama. Garrett wrote of High, “He had acquired a large property.” This, probably more than anything else, attracted the widow to him. High gave no second thought to marrying a woman who had outlived three husbands, as he, too, had been married a few times. Garrett continued in his description of High:

At the time he served in the Capitol, he was a dashing widower, seeking his fourth wife. His head was a little bald, which he took great pains to conceal… At all events, he filled a large space in society at Tuscaloosa, and succeeded in marrying before his term of service expired—an ample compensation, it is hoped, for his subsequent defeat as a legislator.

Venture to say that it was little compensation, as the former legislator was dead within two years of saying “I do.” Husband number four died on February 16, 1841.  

Four is enough for most folks, but Elizabeth was not finished with matrimony just yet. She took her fifth husband, Absalom Brown, on March 16, 1846. Brown was a wealthy merchant. His wealth, along with her existing assets, allowed Elizabeth to build the house she always wanted atop her Indian mound in Hazel Green, Alabama.

For simplicity, “Elizabeth Dale,” date unknown.

An enslaved master builder and a crew of others worked for over a year to complete the home. The finished product was an impressive four-on-four home built to overlook the road to Hazel Green. It was furnished with the best furniture her husbands’ money could buy. The gardens surrounding the home were also impressive, with varieties of flowers and shrubs.

Absalom Brown did not enjoy the home for very long, though. He died in 1847, leaving behind a young daughter and, of course, the almost-perpetual widow.

Brown’s death was long remembered in the community for many reasons, the first being the nature of his burial. After his death, his body began to swell. Fearing what might happen if they left him in the parlor, the widow made the decision to bury him that night. This is when the rumor mill really started churning. What was she trying to hide by burying her husband at night? Many speculated she had poisoned her poor husband and that’s why the body reacted as it did. The nighttime funeral was her way of covering up the evidence, they thought.

Despite all of the rumors and speculation surrounding the widow, Willis Routt was not deterred. He married Elizabeth in 1848. As fate would have it, he died three years later in 1851, leaving Elizabeth a six-time widow. Lips continued to flap around North Alabama as everyone speculated on the nature of Willis Routt’s death.

To make matters worse, Elizabeth’s father had died in the home just a few months before Willis Routt. The widow’s parents had moved into Elizabeth’s home around 1850. When Adam Dale died in October 1851, he was buried with Elizabeth’s husbands in the ever-growing family cemetery. Elizabeth’s mother went back to Columbia. As the years went on and the rumors surrounding “the Widow of Hazel Green” continued to spread, Mrs. Dale imposed upon her son-in-law, Nathan Vaught, to go and retrieve her late husband’s remains.

Nathan Vaught, long-remembered as Maury County’s “Master Builder,” was also a founder of Rose Hill Cemetery. Established in 1853, this was to be the new home of Adam Dale’s remains. This, too, created a buzz, as when the body was disinterred, Vaught discovered it was petrified and dark—sure signs, many thought, that poor old Dad had met the same fate as Elizabeth’s husbands… poison!

Even with all of the rumors, another man came courting. His name was D. H. Bingham, a school teacher from Meridanville. Even though near sixty years of age, Elizabeth was said to still be beautiful and Bingham was very much smitten. The two might have married, too, had it not been for a neighbor named Abner Tate.

Some say the fight began over Elizabeth’s livestock getting loose and ruining Tate’s crops. Others believe that Tate had wanted to marry the widow himself but had been rejected. Whatever the case, Tate set out to ruin Elizabeth and he didn’t have to work very hard to do it—he just repeated what everyone else had already been saying about her. Shortly thereafter, Tate was shot and wounded by one of his slaves. The generally accepted story was that Elizabeth paid one of her own slaves to kill Abner Tate, and this slave subcontracted one of Tate’s slaves to do the deed.

Being only slightly wounded, Tate continued his harassment of the widow.  Elizabeth countered by having her courter, D. H. Bingham, level claims of murder against Tate. (Supposedly, he had killed a traveler from Kentucky on his property and had the body burned in the fireplace to dispose of the evidence.) Tate retaliated by writing a pamphlet titled, Defense of Abner Tate Against Charges of Murder Preferred by D. H. Bingham.

In this small book, he struck out at the widow with a vengence, writing her “bridal chamber was a charnel house.” As if that were not enough, he continued about Elizabeth, writing “around whose marriage couch six grinning skeletons were already hung.” Elizabeth filed a $50,000 defamation suit against Tate.

Elizabeth Dale-Gibbons-Flanagan-Jeffries-High-Brown-Routt had already lost in the court of public opinion. Rumors continued to spread about the widow. One famous story is that she kept six pegs by her front door and hanging from each peg was a hat belonging to one of her husbands.

Before a decision could be made by the courts, Elizabeth sold her Hazel Green plantation and moved to Mississippi. She would later drop her defamation suit against Tate. There is no documentation that she ever married again. She died in Marshall County, Mississippi in 1866.

Despite her death in 1866, her story lives on. Generations of children in North Alabama were told ghost stories about the home in Hazel Green, Alabama where so many husbands died by poisoning.  Some have even gone as far as to call Elizabeth Routt a witch.

Was she an evil, husband-killing witch or the victim of cruel misfortune? That truth went with her to the grave in Mississippi. But, her legend still lives on.

In 1982, songwriters Jim McBride and Stewart Harris got together to write, and, as they were brainstorming for inspiration, the two started swapping ghost stories from their childhoods. McBride remembered hearing the story of the Black Widow of Hazel Green, although he mistakenly thought the widow’s name was Rose. After sharing this story with Harris, the two penned the song Rose in Paradise which Waylon Jennings released in 1987 and took all the way to the top of the Country Music charts, lending a pop-culture tie to this story with strong Maury County ties.

Today, in Columbia’s Rose Hill Cemetery, two graves that pre-date the cemetery’s founding stand just within a few yards of each other—that of Adam Dale, Elizabeth’s father who died in 1851, and Rev. Samuel G. Gibbons, her first husband, who passed in Hickman County in 1830.

-Adam Southern

The grave of Rev. Samuel G. Gibbons. He died in 1830 in Centerville, TN and was moved to Columbia’s Rose Hill Cemetery after its founding in 1853. His monument is shaped like an alter and the top is complete with an open Bible. The main base also includes Masonic symbols.

References:

Garrett, Jill Knight. “Hither and Yon”: The Best of the Writings of Jill K. Garrett. Maury County Historical Society, 1999.

Garrett, William. Reminiscences of Public Men in Alabama for Thirty Years, with an Appendix. Plantation Pub. Co.’s Press, 1872.

Hackett, Vernell, and Angela Stefano. “Story behind the Song: Waylon Jennings, ‘Rose in Paradise’.” The Boot, 16 Mar. 2016, theboot.com/waylon-jennings-rose-in-paradise-lyrics/.

Jones, Pat. “Historic Homes: The High-Brown-Routt Home.” The Huntsville Times, 26 Mar. 1933, p. 4.

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