On the evening of October 7, 2008,with Tom Brokaw of NBC/MSNBC in the moderator’s chair, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and then-Senator Barack Obama(D-IL) engaged in a town hall format debate on the campus of Nashville’s Belmont University. Not being a particular devotee of politics, I was more interested in the oldest building on campus: the home of a true southern belle named Adelicia Hayes Franklin Acklen Cheatham (1817-1887)–the ghost of Belmont University.
Adelicia Acklen, as she is most usually known, was a steel magnolia, everything a southern belle was supposed to be: a wife, mother, accomplished flirt, and canny businesswoman, not above using her flirtatiousness and beauty to bring men to terms. In the evocative words of writer Christopher K. Coleman, “her real-life manipulation of the male of the species would have made the fictional Scarlett O’Hara seem like a naive schoolgirl in comparison” (Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground , p. 182).
Married for the first time at twenty-two, to Isaac Franklin, a man nearly thirty years her senior, Adelicia was left a widow at twenty-nine. She bore four children to Franklin, but none survived childhood. To her second husband, Joseph Acklen, she bore six children, three of whom lived to adulthood.
Her most famous exploit came during the Civil War. With Joseph Acklen already dead and her cotton holdings in Louisiana threatened by both Confederate troops (who wanted to burn them to keep them from falling into Union hands) and Union troops (who wanted to burn them to keep Addie, as she was called, from selling them for profit and possibly turning over the profits to the Confederate war effort), she persuaded both sides to spare her cotton–probably making effective use of her status as a widow with children to raise in those difficult times–and got a Confederate cavalry escort for the Union wagon train that took her cotton to New Orleans, where she promptly sold it to British merchants. She made a huge profit on this venture, it’s said, perhaps as much as a million dollars, and ended the war as one of the richest women in the south.
The girl had talent–
Addie’s last marriage didn’t end well. She left her third husband, a Dr. Cheatham, in 1886, went to live with one of her grown children in New York City, and died there on a shopping trip in 1887.
Her mansion was sold and for many years operated as an exclusive finishing school–and later college–for young women. Two of Belmont’s most distinguished alumnae from that period in its history were the legendary Broadway performer Mary Martin and country music’s beloved Sarah Cannon–better known as Cousin Minnie Pearl. As a four year university under the auspices of the Southern Baptist Convention since the 1950s, it boasts among other distinguished graduates singer Trisha Yearwood.
Addie’s mansion is used today for formal receptions and the like. There have been stories, however, that she has haunted the house almost from the time of her death.
She was photographed, some years ago, standing beside a clock that had belonged to her second husband, a slender woman in a hooded cloak.
Sometimes, she’s seen as a Lady in White, as she was on the night in the 1960s when some coeds, studying late in a lounge in the old building, looked up and saw her: in a gown belted at the waist, her black hair hanging loose like a young girl’s, seemingly as solid as the girls themselves–until she vanished.
I hope candidates, media and audience in attendance at the event, that night, behaved well. I cannot think that a true southern lady, as Addie undoubtedly was, would have put up with any bad behavior.