NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Many ghost stories have been told at spots around Tennessee, but the dark history of some of the state’s old prisons and jails alone is enough to give visitors an eerie feeling.
Most of the facilities that people now believe to be haunted were in operation for more than a century before they closed, some for inhumane and unsafe conditions. Throughout those years, the facilities held some of the state’s most violent murderers, robbers and rapists.
One of those infamous inmates was James Earl Ray, who assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968. During his time at the historic Brushy Mountain State Prison, Ray was stabbed 22 times by his fellow inmates.
Some say the amount of violence, death and despair experienced at places like the Brushy Mountain State Prison still lingers in the air. A similar effect is felt at the historic Scott County Jail and Tennessee State Prison, where riots and an unsolved murder took place.
While the old, abandoned Tennessee State Prison remains closed to the public, the other two sites have become popular spots for those seeking out the paranormal. Below are the haunting stories behind the state’s old prisons and jails.
Historic Brushy Mountain State Prison
Brushy Mountain State Prison was known as the last stop for the worst criminals in Tennesse, and often the last place anyone wanted to find themselves. Established in 1896, the original prison structure was built by inmates who would later spend time behind the walls.
According to the Brushy Mountain Group, which came together to host tours and events at the prison after it closed in 2009, life inside the penitentiary was “precarious to say the least.”
While there was never a death row at the prison, several inmates died from diseases like tuberculosis and pneumonia and at the hands of guards who would beat them for “underproducing” in the mines.
Not only was the medical treatment at the jail generally poor, but overcrowding was so prevalent that the Brushy Mountain State Prison drew comparisons to conditions inside the Siberian prisons of the Soviet Union.
In 1934, the state constructed a new building in the shape of a Greek cross, which for a brief moment, made things safer and more sanitary. However, prisoners continued to work and die in the mines for decades.
Often, those who wore out their welcome at other prisons were taken to Brushy as a last stop. By 1969, Brushy was reclassified as a maximum-security prison. The assassin James Earl Ray was transported there a year later, before trying to escape, failing and getting stabbed.
Other infamous inmates include Byron (Low Tax) Looper, who shot and killed his political rival in 1998, and Paul Dennis Reid, who became known as the “Fast Food Killer” after murdering seven fast food employees in the span of a few months in 1997.
Guards at the prison went on strike in 1972 to demand security improvements, which caused the prison to shut down for four years. However, tensions remained when it reopened in 1976, with multiple guards being held hostage during a deadly shooting six years later.
After 113 years in operation, the prison finally closed in June 2009. Legend has it the souls of the men who died there still haunt the Brushy Mountain State Prison. According to the Brushy Mountain Group, visitors have reported being touched, shoved, scratched and even growled at.
Old Tennessee State Prison
When the old Tennessee State Prison first opened in the Cockrill Bend area of Nashville in 1898, it was considered one of the most modern and humane compounds in the country. However, that reputation did not last.
The next 94 years would be characterized by complaints of “inhumane conditions,” beginning in the early 1900s when children and teens who served out sentences there were whipped as punishment and “suffered at the hands of older inmates,” according to reports by The Tennessean.
Other accounts have suggested there was violence at the hands of prison wardens, with one warden earning the Tennessee State Prison the nickname “Swafford’s Grave” because of his violent tactics for keeping inmates in line.
Hundreds of bodies were buried on the property, and the electric chair was used to execute at least 78 people on death row between 1916 and 1960. The latter part of the 1900s was defined by several riots that broke out over conditions at the prison, including the 1975 “pork chop” riot.
In 1982, a federal judge declared parts of Tennessee’s prison system unconstitutional because of overcrowding, unhealthy and inhumane conditions reported at facilities like the Tennessee State Prison.
Few people have stepped foot inside the Tennessee State Prison since it was forced to close in 1992, but those who have report ghostly encounters such as the sounds of cell bars clunking or footsteps echoing down the halls.
The Tennessee Department of Correction does not allow people on the property, largely due to safety concerns. However, the castle-like structure, which was later used as a filming location for movies like The Green Mile, can still be seen from the road.
Historic Scott County Jail
The Scott County Jail is one of the oldest buildings in the county, and is fraught with history, including an unsolved murder that happened right outside of the jail. It was built in 1904 using large sandstone from the local area and remained open for a little over 100 years.
During that time, the facility, which was sanctioned for around 50 inmates, housed some of the worst offenders from Scott County, according to News 2’s sister station, WATE. However, because of overcrowding, there would often be over 100 inmates at the jail.
A third floor added to the jail in 1922 to house maximum security prisoners was where inmates like Jerome Boyette stayed. In 1933, Boyette killed Sheriff Winningham and went on the run before he was eventually chased down by an angry mob and lynched.
His ghost is said to still linger at the prison. However, visitors of the jail, which was reopened as a museum in 2021, believe he’s not alone. Some people have reported hearing Sheriff Richard Ellis humming, singing and walking the halls of the Scott County Jail.
Ellis was ambushed and killed on Aug. 13, 1925, as he was bringing a moonshiner into the jail. The shots came from behind, but to this day, nobody knows who pulled the trigger. After a century of use, the jail was closed for good in 2008.
The jail, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places, remained vacant for nearly 13 years before being turned into a museum. Now, the public can go on flashlight tours, guided ghost hunts and private paranormal investigations.