Friday the 13th: Ghosts, duels & falling glass fill 200 years of haunted history at Bijou Theatre
"If every story I've ever heard is true, it's standing room only for ghosts in here."
The tale of two Thomases:
Editor's Note: This story was originally published in October 2018.
An 1800s business rivalry becomes deadly.
Standing tall in the heart of Knoxville for more than 200 years, the Bijou Theatre has housed a variety of businesses and people.
"Any building that has been here awhile is going to have a few shady things happen," storyteller Laura Still explained. "Plenty of time for people to get shot, killed, die of disease, fall down stairs."
The Knoxville ghost tour guide and author of A Haunted History of Knoxville said the Bijou is likely the most haunted building in town. She's come to know the history of the haunted hallways well.
"I have a favorite I admit," she said. "It comes to us from 1876, and in those days it was the best hotel in town, where all the cool people would hang out."
In those very days there was a rifle drilling club full of young men that were too young to have served in the war. The group would march in parades and even bought uniforms. But just because they had a club together, didn't mean they got along.
"There were two guys both named Thomas," Still said. "There was Thomas Sneed who operated the Lamar House Hotel, which was the Bijou. Then there was Thomas Atkins, who operated the Atkins hotel, second best in town."
An all-day party at Lamar House led to a night of drinking, and ultimately a business rivalry was put to the test between to the two men.
"At about 3 o'clock in the morning, Thomas Atkins had a lot to drink and just wanted some water, so he went to Lamar House, but no one would serve him. Then he runs into into Thomas Sneed," Still said.
Sneed had the bad judgment to make a joke and say 'What do you want water for when you can have a man's drink?' A shoving match began.
"Thomas Sneed, who was smaller, shouted 'Thomas Atkins is pulling a knife on me!' so everyone turns around, and Atkins says 'I don't have a knife! I don't need it against him!' So Sneed pulls back the coat of his jacket," Still explained. "And he had a derringer pistol tucked in the pocket."
This just infuriated Atkins even more, so he grabs Sneed by his jacket and slams into him. But when Sneed gets up, he pulls his pistol and shoots Atkins in front of everyone.
Despite a room full of witnesses, and Sneed standing over the dead body holding his pistol, he got off with a claim of self-defense. But he ruined his social career.
Today, the rivals are buried just feet apart in Old Gray Cemetery, but that doesn't mean their spirits stay there.
"If you're ever in the Bijou or the Bistro and it's late at night, and you hear footsteps where there ought not to be footsteps, just pull out water and you'll be safe," Still recommends.
Some believe Thomas Atkins roams the theatre, still thirsty, more than 140 years later.
The Ghost of William P. Sanders:
The famous general took his dying breath in the former hotel, and some say he stuck around.
When the show ends and the Bijou Theatre closes for the evening, a small cleaning crew remains to work into the late hours of the night.
"At first I got really spooked by this building, you feel like someone is watching you," cleaner Sharlene Bousch said.
After a few months on the job, she's already had her fair share of encounters.
"A couple of weeks ago, I came up here by myself, all the lights were off, no big deal, I turned them all on except for the men's bathroom light," Bousch explained. "I got the women's bathroom cleaned and went over to men's, and there was a man standing there in a uniform with gold buttons coming down it. It was so solid there was a gleam on the buttons. I saw him and ran. I didn't know I could run that fast!"
Bousch did some research to find out who the mystery man might be.
"I got the impression that it was William, the general that died on the 4th floor here," Bousch said.
During the Civil War, the building--then a hotel--was used as a hospital for those wounded on both sides. William P. Sanders was shot by a confederate sharpshooter and later died in the bridal suite of the Bijou. His namesake lives on in Knoxville in the Ft. Sanders area, while his ghost seems to stick around the theatre.
"A lot of times when spirits stay on instead of moving on is because they have unfinished business to attend to," Bousch explained, "If they aren't happy with something, and if you solve the problem, it can help them cross."
Smiley: the ghost that never was:
Is he fact or fiction?
When the curtain falls, that doesn't mean the show is over.
"I believe there is a spiritual world out there and we are living among unseen," Tim Burns, the former technical director at the Bijou, said.
Inside the Bijou Theatre, there's one light that's left on.
"It's what we refer to as the ghost light, all the theater stages have them. It's a night light that is set out after everyone leaves the theater," Burns explained. "The name 'ghost light' is because there is no one else here but the ghosts!"
If there's anyone who has spent time at all hours in the supposedly haunted theatre, it's Burns. He started at the theater in 1986 as a volunteer, worked his way up to technical director. and now works as the technical director at the Tennessee Theatre.
Though he's never come face-to-face with any apparitions, he says they like to take center-stage. His earliest memory is of things falling from the ceiling from an unknown source.
"On the grid area there would be a loud crash and plaster or dirt would come falling down and hit the stage, we'd look up there and there was nothing up there. There was an old smoke vent that didn't close tightly-- it kept occurring, so we passed it off," Burns said.
During a roof renovation phase, though, his suspicions were confirmed when a construction crew had a similar experience.
"They had finished the ceiling and were taking the scaffolding down," Burns explained. "One morning they were loading up and the foreman said 'You almost didn't find us here today,' he said. 'We came in like we always do, with the lights on, finishing our coffee up there on that scaffold when there was a large crash and plaster and scaffolding came flying off.' He said if there had been anyone up there we would have seen them!'"
Some spooky tales come from thin air, like the name "Smiley" hidden high in the rafters on the stage.
"There was a stage hand that worked here from the time the building opened in 1909 till it closed in 1926. His name was Smiley. Elium Smiley," Burns explained. People see he signed his name underneath the landing bridge up there and they see that name the ghost must be 'Smiley'."
Whether you believe in ghosts or not, theater culture goes that no matter how much mischief they may cause, the show must go on.
Spirits at the Bistro at the Bijou:
Ghosts searching for a late night snack?
Historians say the Bijou Theatre is the most haunted building in Knoxville. Which means the bustling Bistro next door is sure to attract a few phantoms.
"I've always been interested in the supernatural and ghosts and love the creepy stories," Bistro owner Martha Boggs said.
Boggs has worked there since 1993 and took over in 2009. She's had more than hungry customers slip in her doors.
"One of the first things I saw here was when I was opening up in the morning, and I saw someone go up the stairs. I went up the stairs to see if I could help them and there was nobody there," Boggs said.
While some ghosts seem to come quietly, others make themselves known.
"I was closing up one night, and was going into the restroom to check the doors and something cold came to my back and grabbed my shirt and it was icy, icy cold," she said. "I turned around,every goose bump came up on my body. Nobody was there. I ran to the ladies room and came out and closed everything as fast as I could and left," Boggs described.
She tries to not get too scared by the interactions, and likes to think the ghosts that haunt her restaurant have a sense of humor.
"I've seen things that can't be explained, glasses sliding off, dishes, things falling, particularly back in the kitchen. I have one cook that they love to throw things at. We started making a joke that that ghost does not like Troy!" Boggs laughed.
A little laughter may ease the goosebumps, but Boggs said it doesn't spook away the spirits.
"I hear voices a lot, especially when I'm here by myself," she said. "There will be voices and they call my name a lot. It's creepy, just as clear as a bell."