Kingsport, TN – There are places about which legends are born. For some stories survive for generations because of personalities so evil, the mere mention of their names is used to terrify children. For others stories of love lost and tragedy give a place a romantic, if melancholy, air. But for a few the tales of the tragic and terrible collide, creating a place where the past and present fuse, and where some long to visit but others dread. With the edge of time legends and folk tales arise, but no matter how strange they sound, there is usually a base in truth. Sometimes the truth is more horrifying, more tragic than the stories.
Photo credit Monica Weiberg
When most folks think of the proverbial “Haunted House,” they picture an enormous structure out on a lonely hill, filled with one sort of ghost or another. Most frequently it is a single presence that gets all the attention. But the longer a house stands, the more owners it has had, the more likely that there will be multiple entities within its walls. We’ve all heard of places haunted by malevolent spirits or by weeping women in white, but it isn’t often that one encounters both in the same place.
The structure known as Rotherwood is actually the second on the same parcel of land to hold the namesake, the first having burned to the ground in the early 1800’s. It was built by the Reverend F. A. Ross, a successful plantation owner who founded what would eventually become known as Kingsport. Ross had a daughter named Rowena, whom he lavished with gifts and ensured her future, he thought, by sending her to the very best schools. Two years out of school, she met a young man from Knoxville and the two fell in love. They were to be married, but the boy was killed while fishing on the Holston River that ran behind the mansion. To make matters worse, most legends state that she saw the accident, and a few claim it took place on their wedding day. The fact that he did die is confirmed through town records.
Rowena disappeared from the public for a time, but when she did return, she continued to catch the eyes of men. Two years after the tragic death of her fiancé, she married another man named Edward Temple. They were married less than a year before he succumbed to Yellow Fever. Rowena again withdrew into the mansion and was not seen outside for several years. Ten years after the loss of her husband, she again married, and with this came a daughter, Theodosia. This marriage lasted for only a few years, but Rowena had never fully recovered from the deaths of her first and second loves. Despondent, Rowena walked into the river behind her home and drowned herself, leaving her six-year-old daughter behind.
The reverend lost all of his money in an attempt to break into the cotton market and was forced to sell his mansion to a cruel slave-owner named Joshua Phipps around 1850. Phipps was the sort of man who enjoyed inflicting as much pain on his slaves as possible, going so far as to erect a whipping post inside the house. He was only matched in his cruelty by his mistress, a former slave herself. The people of Kingsport detested the man and refused to have anything to do with him. In 1861 Phipps grew ill and took to his bed with a fever. He took a slave to fan him while he slept. According to the slave, as Phipps lay there dozing, a swarm of flies appeared and filled his mouth and nostrils, suffocating him. His mistress was murdered by the slaves for her cruelty.
There are four ghosts that haunt the property, and only one of them is the type people like to encounter. Appearing in white (reputedly her wedding gown) near the river and on the grounds of the mansion, Rowena Ross still looks for her first love, drowned so long ago. The first appearance of her apparition occurred mere weeks after her suicide.
The second, less friendly spirit said to haunt the grounds is an enormous black dog, which legend says climbed out of Phipps’ casket before it was buried. This “hell hound” supposedly roams the areas where Phipps and his mistress are buried, though the unnamed mistress’ grave is unmarked. She constitutes the third spirit claimed to haunt the place, and her habits are known for causing trouble. More often seen than anything else, she appears without warning, startling and scaring people before fading away.
The last ghost, and certainly the most active, is the malevolent Josh Phipps himself. Mostly known for yanking the covers off beds and sending peals of maniacal laughter down the halls, he is also known for poking and pushing the living. He’s also been blamed for objects moved and for general feelings of unease around the house. It is also believed that he is to blame for the screams that some report hearing at night coming from the house, and for the bloodspots that reputedly reappear on the floor every time it rains.
Since Phipps’ death in 1861, the old mansion has changed hands several times. The first president of the home and loan company lived there from 1905 until around 1917, when it was bought by Kingsport city founder John B. Dennis, who used the house for entertaining. The U.S. Army owned the place during World War II. The house was sold at auction in 1984 for $240,000, due in no small part to the deterioration of the house. In 1987, a New York fashion designer bought the house with dreams of renovating it. He died before ever seeing his dream completed. In 1982 a local doctor named Lenita Thibault bought the mansion and began renovations.
The house is now a private residence, so visitation is discouraged. Though it is on the National Registry of Historic Places, the owners enjoy privacy, which should be respected. While rumors abound about the woman in white being seen by passers-by, there has been no word as to whether or not the haunting inside the walls continues.
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