She was named for a heroine from a Sir Walter Scott novel, but she isn’t one. She is the Lady in White who haunts the grounds of a pre-Civil War mansion near Kingsport, Tennessee.
The Rev. Frederick Ross, minister, plantation owner and founder of a settlement called Rossville (later renamed Kingsport), built a magnificent house overlooking the Holston River in 1818, a house he called Rotherwood. He was proud of his accomplishments, but his greatest pride was reserved for his beloved only child, a daughter named Rowena, for the heroine of Scott’s IVANHOE. The records do not mention Rowena’s mother; perhaps she died in childbirth. Rev. Ross made sure his daughter had the best of everything; clothes, food, shelter, education, social graces. Yet she was not haughty. She was as gracious as she was beautiful. Unfortunately, tragedy was an almost constant companion in her life.
A couple of years after she left school for good, Rowena met and fell in love with a young man from the area. They were to be married, but the day before the wedding her fiance drowned in a boating accident, in the Holston, at the foot of the slope below Rotherwood—some say before Rowena’s very eyes. His body was recovered at what would have been the hour of their wedding.
Rowena retreated into a black seclusion for the next two years. When she finally began to mingle in society again, it seemed she had a second chance for happiness, for she met another young man, and this time they were married. But for a second time, death stole her love; within months of their marriage, her husband died of yellow fever.
Although Rowena recovered somewhat from this loss, it was ten years before she accepted another lover’s proposal. Her second husband, Edward Temple, was from Alabama, and they had a daughter together who was named for her mother.
And then they returned to Rotherwood—possibly the worst mistake they could have made.
Back at Rotherwood Rowena sank into a bitter melancholy. Some say that she was tormented by the sound of her first love’s voice calling to her from the river. Who knows? What we do know for certain is that her husband and daughter’s love were not enough to dissuade her from the course she took; one night when the moon bathed the Holston in a chilly light, she donned the dress in which she had planned to marry her first love so many years before, walked down the slope to the river, and, stepping in, let the dark water carry her to her death.
She never truly left Rotherwood, though. Within a short time, her white-clad ghost was spotted on the riverbank, apparently still seeking her fiance. She has never found him.
For more information on Rowena Ross and Rotherwood Mansion, I recommend the following:
HAINTS, WITCHES AND BOOGERS: TALES FROM UPPER EAST TENNESSEE, by Charles Edwin Price (1992)
STRANGE TALES OF THE DARK AND BLOODY GROUND, by Christopher K. Coleman (1998)
TENNESSEE GHOSTS: THEY ARE AMONG US by Lynne L. Hall (2006)