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.

Lt. James C. Wooten of Maury

This Sunday on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the world will celebrate the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, the end of the Great War.

At the Maury County Library in Columbia, a selection of books are on display to commemorate the First World War Centenary. The public is encouraged to check out a book or two concerning the conflict thought at the time to be the “war to end all wars.” A unique look at the war can be had by reading Sergeant Stubby: How a Stray Dog and His Best Friend Helped Win World War I and Stole the Heart of a Nation by Ann Bausum.

Also at the library are artifacts from the life of local hero Lt. James C. Wooten.

James Council Wooten, II was born in Columbia on August 7, 1896. He was named for his grandfather, the first James Council Wooten, who had served as a Confederate colonel during the War Between the States. Young Wooten’s father, John, was a merchant and owned Maury Dry Goods. His mother, Emma, was of the prominent Hughes family of Maury County.

Being of a prominent family and having means, James C. Wooten, II was afforded the best education his parents could give him. His early education began at the Columbia Female Institute. (NOTE: It was not unusual for young boys to attend the Institute—the grammar school, or lower grades, were open to both boys and girls from Columbia.) Following the Institute, he attended Columbia Military Academy.

His friends, of which he had many, called him Jim or Jimmy and, by all accounts, he was a very bright young man. These accounts must have been true, as he finished his coursework at C.M.A. and entered the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland at just age 16. While in the academy, “he had been upon a cruise in French waters as a midshipman of junior grade and witnessed the entrance of France’s men into the struggle with Germany.”[1] Jim Wooten would have joined the fight then and there had he been allowed.[2]

In 1914, at the request of his parents, Wooten left the naval academy with an honorable discharge and entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Then, as with now, MIT only took the best and brightest minds. Jim Wooten fit the bill. In addition to his course work, he was involved with the Tech Show Ballet, on the editorial staff, and was on the tug-of-war and wrestling teams. But, when the United States entered World War I, Wooten put his studies aside and volunteered for the army.

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Wooten finished training and was sent to Fortress Monroe in August 1917 as a second lieutenant of the coastal artillery. On the sixth of September, he, along with 2,000 other officers, sailed from New York to France. There, he would volunteer for the aviation service. Except for the month of training he received in France, Lt. Wooten was in service on the front lines.

Flying above the lines as an aerial photographer, he won the admiration of his brothers in arms and citations for gallantry from his commanders.

The Daily Herald printed some of his exploits. On August 13, 1918 (twelve days after his death), the headlines read, “Columbian Out after Pictures Got a German.” In the article, a letter written on July 7th by Lt. Wooten to his parents is printed in its entirety. In the letter, he tells the exciting tale of his latest flight into enemy air with his pilot, Tom:

I sighted 3 Huns coming in, yelled to turn to the left as one dived at us. Tom pulled a quick one and I put my guns on. All 3 immediately beat it without firing. We turned and I snapped another string [aerial photos]. We turned and began as first time. I had head down, snapping about the middle of last string of pictures, having cautioned Tom to watch direction of 3 others, when he yelled “Look out right!” And, gee whizz, there were 7 of them. I yelled “turn left and run!” He yelled “Oh boy!”

… All seven opened up. Well folks, the feeling was over in a second, but I thought we had done the greatest duty and began firing under tail wires, as tail was in way—a bit dangerous but necessary. My guns jammed and, as I managed to jerk them loose, I yelled, “Climb, tail in way!” We climbed and I had wonderful shooting. Picked out 2 in center very close together, left slightly ahead, and let loose. One of right we down into nose dive giving out smoke and the others all turned and went into big cloud, unfortunately. I continued to fire into cloud. The Boche use them to cover themselves. Wish that cloud hadn’t been there.

They put some holes in our ship, shot up our motor. We did our darnedest with our altitude to make the Allied field in a long straight line, but couldn’t make a good field, hit an invisible ditch and tore up, cutting my nose and the back of my head and hurting my old ankle again. We both hollered “OK,” unhooked our belts and crawled out. Doc came up in ambulance but we laughed and ran it away. Tom wasn’t hurt but let the Doc tie up my head after stopping the blood and cutting off some hair. My head is a funny sight now, as the hair I shaved off on top hasn’t grown back and I’ve got another streak behind. Now don’t worry. Any of us old ones who wish can go on Repose now, or I can get leave if things don’t go badly with us, but I want to wait until later.

He closed the letter with:

I wouldn’t write so much about all this for fear of worrying you, but by the time you receive this, I will be safe on leave.

Lots of love to all, from you devoted boy.[3]

Wooten Lt James C

Portrait of Lt. James C. Wooten painted from a previous photograph. This portrait is now at the Maury County Archives. (Photo courtesy of the Maury County Archives.)

That leave would never come. William Fry, a Maury County soldier, wrote his father and included information about of Lt. Wooten’s death on August 1, 1918. Another letter arrived in Columbia a few days later from Wooten’s comrade, Lt. W. L. McNutty, and recounted his fallen friend’s final moments.

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Lt. Wooten was John and Emma’s only child. Grief-stricken, the mother sought to memorialize her son in a way that would benefit the community. Mrs. Wooten was a member of the Student’s Club. This club founded Columbia’s first library in 1902. She knew that the library lacked a children’s section, so in 1919 she created the Lt. James C. Wooten Memorial Children’s Library in her son’s name. Along with the collection, she purchased child-sized furniture and started an endowment to ensure new books were purchased for the children’s library every year. That fund is still active and generates revenue to purchase children’s material annually.

Lt Wooten

Mrs. Emma Wooten in the children’s section of the Maury County Library when it was located inside of the Memorial Building. This children’s section was created in memory of her son. 

Lt. Wooten’s remains rested in France until 1921 when the family was finally able to bring their son home. John and Emma actually traveled to France the year before to visit the original grave site. In May 1921, he was interred in Rose Hill Cemetery. On his cross-shaped marker, his citation from the French government is inscribed.

-Adam Southern

 

References:

[1] Moore, John Trotwood. Tennessee, The Volunteer State, p 823

[2] Ibid

[3] The Daily Herald, August 13, 1918

Dimple of the Universe

The “Dimple of the Universe” is one of Columbia and Maury County’s oldest nicknames. While most of us have heard the saying before, not many know its origins.

John Trotwood Moore penned the phrase, “Dimple of the Universe.” It first appeared in his book, Songs and Stories from Tennessee. The book, re-printed in Philadelphia in 1903, drew national attention and was reviewed in several newspapers, including the Boston Globe. The first sentence of the introduction (titled the “Basin of Tennessee”) reads, “The Middle Basin is the dimple of the Universe.”

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John Trotwood Moore was born in Alabama and moved to Maury County in 1885. He found fame as a storyteller, poet, and horse racing correspondent. He also found a love for recording local history. He became the Tennessee State Librarian & Archivist in 1919.

What Trotwood referred to as the “Middle Basin” is the Nashville Basin of Tennessee—sometimes called the Central Basin. This area is very similar to the Bluegrass Region in Kentucky, which is why Middle Tennessee—especially the southern part—was sometimes called Tennessee’s Blue-Grass Region. (Until just a few years ago, Tennessee’s regional library in Columbia was still called the Blue Grass Regional Library, a throwback to the area’s past identity.)

John Trotwood Moore may have been writing about all of Middle Tennessee, but Maury County folks read between the lines. Many of the stories in the book were local tales Moore had learned from living in the county. When he called the Middle Basin the “Dimple of the Universe,” the people of Maury County knew he was talking about their home.

A Tennessean article written in 1904 called Maury “the garden spot of the Dimple of the Universe.” Even Columbia Military Academy used the slogan in their advertising in the early part of the twentieth century. But, Columbia and Maury County were not the only places using the slogan. Remember—that nickname applied to pretty much all of the mid-state; Nashville, Fayetteville, Pulaski and other communities proudly claimed the title, too.

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1909 CMA ad using “Dimple of the Universe”

The Dimple of the Universe was about to be pinpointed, though, and by an unlikely source.

In 1914, a lady in Boston wrote a letter addressed only to “The Poet, The Dimple of the Universe.” The letter found its way to the “dead letter office” in Washington. As it happened, a lady with Maury County ties worked in the dead letter office and knew exactly what to do. She directed the letter to Columbia, Tennessee and John Trotwood Moore.

Just as with Miracle on 34th Street, if the Post Office can declare Kris Kringle as Santa Claus, it can also recognize Columbia, Tennessee as THE Dimple of the Universe. The best part is the postal services has not only done this once, but twice.

Again, in 1939, a letter addressed to the “Dimple of the Universe” found its way into the mail. The Kingsport Times reported:

The dimple of the universe isn’t recorded as such on the map, but Postmaster Woodruff Booth [Knoxville] believes a letter sent here possibly was intended for Columbia, Tenn.

The letter was addressed to Miss Mary Virginia Webster, Dimple of the Universe, Tenn. It was from the Sigma Alpha Epsilon House at the University of Alabama.

Columbia and Maury County, of which Columbia is the county seat, often are called “the Dimple of the Universe.”

If it is good enough for the U.S. Postal Service, it’s good enough for me.

Welcome to the Dimple of the Universe—Columbia, Tennessee!

-Adam Southern

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A cast aluminum car tag from the 1950s. These are very rare today.