A small sign on the wall behind Bill Byrd read “No Trespassing, Attack Ghosts On Premises.”
Byrd, executive director of Octagon Hall in Simpson County, sipped from an RC Cola and surveyed from his rocking chair the land that was once covered in weary Confederate soldiers. He didn’t used to believe in ghosts, but he’s witnessed phantom footsteps, doors opening and closing, unexplainable singing and strange footage from the 18 cameras at Octagon Hall.
“It’s hard to dispute camera evidence,” Byrd said, tapping the ashes from his cigarette into a spittoon by his chair.
All haunted places have a history, and Octagon Hall is no exception. Built in 1859, the eight-sided structure was home to Andrew Jackson Caldwell and his family. In 1862, about 8,000 to 10,000 Confederate soldiers evacuated Bowling Green—the Confederate capital of Kentucky—and sought refuge from Union forces on the Caldwells’ land. Two days later, the pursuing Union army occupied Octagon Hall. Throughout the Civil War, the Caldwells harbored rebel soldiers, prompting the Union to repeatedly scour the Caldwells’ home and land in hopes of capturing or killing the enemy. Trapdoors and secret places in the wall for hiding Confederates still exist in the house.
The Caldwells suffered personal tragedy. Their infant son AJ died after tumbling down the stairs and breaking his neck. Their daughter Mary languished before dying from her dress catching fire in the basement kitchen. Caldwell’s first wife, Elizabeth, died, and his second wife, Harriet, had him disinterred after his death and reburied in Bowling Green so he would spend eternity with her rather than with Elizabeth. The family cemetery behind the house holds AJ, Mary, Elizabeth and an unknown body. A few yards away, surrounded by bald cypress trees, is a slave cemetery with 17 bodies. Outside the circle of trees lay two buried Confederate soldiers, although many soldiers likely died on the grounds.
The building was a rental home when Byrd formed the Octagon Hall Foundation in 2001 to preserve the site and its history.
Society has changed since the 1860s, and the Confederate history of the property is more troubling to some than its hauntings. Yesenia Boyd volunteers at Octagon Hall and said occasionally visitors balk at the rebel flags or inquire how a historic South-sympathizing property can continue operating. Boyd said nothing on the site is intended to celebrate slavery, racism or division, but that time in America’s history can’t be ignored.
“We don’t need a nation divided like that again, we don’t need slavery again. But if you keep erasing history, you’re going to set yourself up for failure,” Boyd said. “I don’t like what happened to (the slaves). I don’t like that they were slaves, but they were people too. We have to tell their story and honor who they are.”
Byrd said he doesn’t believe preserving Octagon Hall and its grounds is what prompts division in people’s hearts.
“It’s an attitude (that causes division),” Byrd said. “It’s not a symbol or anything else that’s going to do it.”
The site’s history intrigued Byrd, but haunting didn’t enter his mind until a group asked to perform a paranormal investigation at the house. Before that, Byrd had dismissed odd noises as typical for an old structure. Too many unexplained things have happened at the house since then for Byrd or his volunteers to maintain that notion.
“If you can imagine something happening, it’s probably taken place here,” Boyd said.
Byrd became a believer in the basement one day. He saw a young girl with long hair and in a long dress by the back door facing away from him.
“She looked as real as anybody,” Byrd said, figuring she had gotten separated from a tour group.
As the girl turned to face Byrd, her body collapsed in on itself, and she was gone.
“I finally said, ‘Either I’ve lost my mind or I really saw it,’ and I haven’t lost my mind.”
Boyd recounted a time when, between tour groups during Haunted Hall, the site’s October fundraiser, she went to close the two doors of an upstairs bedroom. After closing one door, she said she felt a presence in the room. When she faced the closet, the closet door banged violently and rapidly. Terrified, but not ruling out a prankster, Boyd fled the room. Downstairs, all volunteers and visitors were accounted for. No one had been in the room.
“Look,” Boyd said, holding up her arm, “it still gives me chills just to think about it.”
She said it wasn’t just the event itself, but the feeling she got. “I was not welcome, and I obliged.”
Barry “Bear” Gaunt has been a paranormal investigator for 43 years and has spent a lot of time at Octagon Hall.
“This whole property is encased in the strange and bad,” Gaunt said. “I consider it one of the most haunted residential places I’ve ever been to.”
Byrd and Gaunt described themselves as religious, which traditionally doesn’t jibe with the belief in things that go bump in the night—and the day, in the case of Octagon Hall.
“I have no doubts of the afterlife—heaven, hell, the whole nine yards,” Byrd said, adding that what he’s witnessed at Octagon Hall “actually makes me stronger (in my faith).”
Gaunt said he sometimes asks spirits he encounters what death is like. “They will always say, ‘We can’t tell you.’ There are secrets we’re not supposed to know.”
Although she tries to keep a healthy skepticism, Boyd said the frequent events at Octagon Hall have challenged her.
“Everything I’ve experienced here, I wouldn’t call it an awakening, but it makes you sit back and wonder,” she said. “I don’t think I would believe in any kind of creationism, but I think there’s a lot of stuff I previously thought fits in my little box, and it doesn’t.”
Octagon Hall is open Wednesdays through Saturdays, 9 to 11 a.m. and 1 to 3:30 p.m. and accepts paranormal investigations.