The following is included in Volume 1 of “The Stick Chair Journal,” an annual publication to expand the universe of all things stick chair: More history. More plans. More techniques. Reviews of tools. And Big Thoughts. (Important note: We have printed 4,000 copies of the Journal. Once that press run has been exhausted, we will not reprint this issue.)
We thought “A Vampire Chair” would be a perfect accompaniment to this spooky season.
Handmade sitting chairs have long been a staple of the antique and crafts business in rural, wooded communities. When Allen Eaton published “Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands” in 1937, there were several noted chair makers in eastern Tennessee. Mary Ownby, of Gatlinburg, was a highlight of Eaton’s book. She crafted her chairs from beginning to end. Mary’s first step in making a chair was finding the right tree, which she cut herself. She then split the wood and turned the posts.
Mary made her own chisels. And, like other chairmakers, she bragged that she had made her first chair with a pocketknife.
Other well-respected chair crafters in the 1930s were Ebb Bowman, hard at work in Creeneville, and Noah McCarter in Sevierville. Along with those produced by Mary Ownby, Bowman and McCarter chairs are highly prized by today’s collectors.
Long before the craftsmen (Ed: and women) of the 1930s began to put together chairs, other southern chairmakers had adapted the standard slat-back chair into an item distinct from manufactured Hitchcock chairs. The rear posts were shaved down and curved backward. The result was a seat that folks now call a mule-ear chair. It is similar to the type made in the early 1800s. Sometimes there were two slats across the back, sometimes three.
But the most famous handcrafted sitting chair made in the region hasn’t been located recently. When it is found, you don’t want to be the one sitting in it. The chair is cursed in a peculiar way and is apt to draw blood.
A true antique, the so-called Vampire Chair of East Tennessee was made by brothers named Eli and Jacob Odom up in the high mountains of Carter County near Shell Creek. The brothers seem to be of no relation to Solomon W. Odom, a highly regarded former chairmaker in the same area.
Eli and Jacob Odom came to Shell Creek in 1806, it is believed, and began making chairs that they traded for salt, sugar, meat and coffee. The brothers knew that a chair was only as good as its joints, and they had a secret for making perfect joints. They carefully fitted seasoned hickory rounds into green maple posts. The green wood shrunk over the rounds as it dried, holding them tightly into place. Old wood into new, that was all there was to it.
The brothers’ chairs became famous because they held together so well. Hundreds of chairs were made and traded. By the 1840s, the chairs Eli and Jacob made were being carried down the mountain and taken into stores where they were sold for hefty profit. Resort hotels lined their long front porches with the mule-ear chairs from Shell Creek.
Wagonloads of the chairs were eventually driven south and the slat-back seats of Carter County found their way into the finer homes of Chattanooga.
Through normal trade, a pair of chairs made their way into the domicile of a woman who lived alone in a little cabin high above the Hiwassee River near Charleston, Tennessee. This woman was nobody’s sweet little old lady. The woman who lived high on a cliff above the river was a vampire.
There is no record of her exploits, nor of the reasons her neighbors held for killing her. All that is known is how she died and where she was buried.
In 1917, a county crew was widening the upper road on the river bluff just outside Charleston. Not far from Oostanaula Creek, they unearthed the body of an adult woman who had been buried long before. She’d been buried, apparently, in the middle of the road. The body, according to the late Frank G. Trewhitt, was wholly petrified by the high level of minerals in the ground water there.
Also petrified was the wooden stake that had been driven through the woman’s heart prior to her body being buried in the road.
“The land on which the body was found was once the property of my great grandfather, and it was passed to his sons,” Mr. Trewhitt wrote in an article published in the Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin. “If they had ever heard of any vampire stories hereabouts, I would have been told.”
It was once tradition to refuse sanctified burials to known murderers, witches and other perceived villains of society. Scoundrels and witches were at times buried at crossroads, so that their eternal rest would be anything but peaceful. It was the practice to bury evil persons where foot, horse and wagon traffic would create a continual clamor overhead.
Traffic would also keep the dirt above the grave tightly packed down. This is important, particularly with vampires and witches. Such evildoers might be able to return from the dead and escape their coffins by tooth and fingernail, clawing their way to the surface to seek revenge.
As an additional measure of safety, these ghouls, once executed, were buried face down. Should they wake from death interred and seek to dig themselves from under the earth, they would dig in the wrong direction. They would only dig themselves more deeply into the earth.
The piece of wood through the dust-dry heart of the mummified corpse of Bradley County’s lady vampire wasn’t any old piece of wood. It was a cradle-lathed post, a bottom leg support, from one of the chairs that had been in the woman’s cabin on the ridge. The chair had been crafted by brothers Eli and Jacob from Shell Creek.
Soon after her murder and burial, the woman’s furniture and other worthwhile belongings were carried from her home by those who desired them. The house fell to ruin. Nobody would live there.
It wasn’t long until the Eli and Jacob chair, its round expertly replaced, found its way into a prompt series of trades among the citizens of Bradley County. No one wanted to keep that chair. After a few years, it ended up at one of the hotels. Someone, who was afraid to throw away or light fire to it, left it on the hotel’s porch at the end of a line of similarly made chairs.
Legend says the chair sits as comfortably as any, with a finely woven seat of hickory splits. Well, at first. Then it becomes very uncomfortable for the person who sits in the chair.
Nothing is seen, but plenty is felt. The occupant is held fast for a time, against one’s will, until a scratch appears on a forearm or bare leg, and blood drips to the floor. Only after a drop of blood stains the floor or the ground under the chair, is the occupant capable of fleeing from the chair.
Those familiar with the blood-drawing qualities of this individual chair were afraid to destroy it, beat it to pieces with hammers, or catch it on fire, lest they be cursed in a manner much worse than a drop of blood hitting the floor. So they passed it along.
The Eli and Jacob Odom handcrafted slat-back chair haunts eastern Tennessee still. Reports have placed it in any number of antique stores over the years. Others have sworn it was once on the creaky front porch of a bed-and-breakfast in Gatlinburg, on the college campus at Tusculum, and at a garage sale in Kingsport. Truth is the Vampire Chair of East Tennessee could turn up just about anywhere. The hope remains that it doesn’t turn up perched under you.