The Keith Mansion, now maintained as a bed and breakfast, is one of the showplaces of Athens, Tennessee, some twenty miles west as the crow flies from Knobite Corner. With its gleaming white columns, small balcony above the front door, and elegant brick, it’s a near-perfect example of antebellum architecture; so it comes as a bit of a surprise to learn that it was built between 1858-1864, with time out as a Civil War hospital used by both armies following skirmishes around Athens as part of the Chattanooga campaigns, when the great wooden columns on the front porch were burned for firewood.
It also has a ghost story. I’m told the owners and staff of the B&B have enthusiastically embraced this haunting. I don’t know exactly how they tell the story. I tell it the way my friend Willard, a native of Athens, told it to me.
It seems that the Mr. Keith who built the mansion was a supremely jealous man with a supremely beautiful wife. The lovely Mrs. Keith, so they say, died in the proverbial mysterious circumstances. The whispers have always said that her husband, driven to despair by the attentions other men paid her, although she never responded to those attentions in any way, had done away with her somehow. After a conventional mourning period, the widower remarried. The second Mrs. Keith was also a virtuous woman, and came with a sort of lopsided bonus: as Willard puts it, she was “homely as a mud fence.”
It was during the second Mrs. Keith’s tenure as lady of the manor that war came to Athens. As many other women in the larger homes of the south did, she presided over the house while it was crowded with the wounded and dying, first of one army and then another. It was from young soldiers, many of them scarcely out of their teens, that the first stories came: of a lovely lady in a white dress who tended them when they were near death, tossing with fever, weakened by infection, suffering from diarrhea and the myriad indignities of the wartime hospital. She would appear at their bedsides at their lowest ebbs, when others had given them up to die, wiping their feverish bodies down with cool cloths, giving them a little water to drink, whispering soothingly as she provided these kindnesses with the tenderness of a boy’s own mother.
Every one of the dying boys to whom the lovely lady tended survived their wounds and fevers. And they were to a man stunned to hear, when they told their stories of her kindness and sweetness and, above all, her great beauty, that no such woman had at any time during those months served as a nurse at Keith Mansion.
Based on the descriptions the young men gave–descriptions dismissed as the products of delirium–, however, she could have been none other than the first Mrs. Keith.
Some say she’s still there, although it’s been far more than a century since she saved so many young lives with her gentle care–a lady in white, flitting through the halls of what was once her home.