Infamous Brown's Tavern opens to ghost hunters for first time in 50 years

Tours turn local residents into supernatural investigators

Staff writer Myron Madden stands outside Brown's Tavern, where legend says several murders were committed two centuries ago by the inn's owner, John Brown. (Staff photo by Myron Madden)

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photo Tour guide Jack Staples shines a light on John Brown's tombstone. Though the late tavern owner was forced to walk the Trail of Tears, it is believed he snuck back and was buried somewhere on the property. (Staff photo by Myron Madden)

I crouch down in the darkness and open my mind to the supernatural. "Are you here with us?" I hear someone whisper from across the room. All 10 of us huddled inside the dingy log cabin wait silently for an answer. The glow from my companions' collective ghost detecting gizmos is just bright enough for me to make out a decades-old bloodstain tattooed to the wooden floor.

"What did he do to you?" a woman asks the night.

We all keep our eyes glued to our various heat sensors and energy meters. We're waiting for a sign from the other side. Something. Anything.

"How many are here with-?"


Ten heads pop up in surprise as the sound echoes off the walls on the floor below us. No one has to say what we're all thinking. It was a banging noise. Like the sound of a lifeless body being dropped. Just as the legend says.

"...Was that someone downstairs?" our guide calls out.

For a moment, we all fall silent. No one blinks. No one breathes.


We all look at each other. Then, with the slightest hint of relief, we laugh. It was just another late-night ghost hunter.

At least, this time.

The Tavern

I've had a couple... odd Saturday nights over the course of my life, but none will ever compare to the night I spent in the cabin of a deceased murderer, searching for the ghosts of his victims.

Resting in the shadow of Lookout Mountain since 1803, Brown's Tavern is the oldest house in Hamilton County. Despite its remarkable age, the landmark's true lure is its late owner, the mysterious John Brown.

Long before a dam tamed the Tennessee River, travelers and traders hauled merchandise through Moccasin Bend by horse and wagon, and their favorite stop along the way was Brown's impressive two-story inn. The tavern was famed not only because its owner offered travelers passage over the river with his ferry, but because of the owner himself. A man of partial Cherokee decent, Brown was known as a genial host and a fantastic storyteller.

But he had a dark secret.

Legend has it Brown often snuck a peek at his guests' goods, then directed his kindest conduct to traders hauling merchandise sure to sell well. Those mesmerized by his charm would return, wagons empty and pockets full of gold, and Brown would let them rest their weary heads in the cabin's north bedroom - only to bash them in later.

Under cover of darkness, Brown supposedly not only murdered his money-making patrons, but dragged their bodies and wagons onto his ferry and dumped all the evidence into the cold Tennessee waters. But his crimes wouldn't stay hidden forever.

Years after Brown's death, a team dredging the river discovered a line of broken wagon parts and human bones along Brown's ferry crossing, and the legend was born. Today, the haunting tale of John Brown is told around campfires, before bedtimes - and among eager groups of amateur ghost hunters joining Chattanooga Ghost Tours to see if Brown's victims are still holding a grudge.

photo Tour guide Jack Staples studies his structured light sensor, a piece of ghost hunting equipment that lets him see thermal temperature and light frequency through a camera. The device shows a dark figure moving behind one of the other ghost hunters. (Staff photo by Myron Madden)

The Hunt

When I signed up for two hours in Brown's Tavern with Chattanooga Ghost Tours, I was expecting just that: a tour. Maybe there'd be a little bit of history, some mild cardio and a few spooky stories about the cabin's lingering spirits. But when I pulled up to the supposedly haunted hangout at 10:30 p.m. in early September, I got something much better: a chance to hunt the spirits down myself.

After a quick brush-up on all things John Brown, our "tour" guide, Jack Staples, a devout hunter for decades, equipped us with the latest in ghost hunting technology. The selection included electromagnetic field detectors, which measure electromagnetic fluctuations that make it possible to track the field-disrupting entities; an Ovilus, used to translate spirits' energy into words or phonetic sounds; and thermometer guns, temperature gauges that show significant drops in temperature like one would supposedly experience when ghosts are near.

Cradling our new toys, we quickly scrambled to different sections of the cabin, scanning and scrutinizing every inch for paranormal activity. Though we were only the second group allowed access to Brown's Tavern in the last 50 years, we had heard the stories. During the last hunt, Chattanooga Ghost Tours founder Amy Petulla's Ovilus had told her 38 spirits were lurking around the tavern - and we were determined to find them all.

When the first hour of our hunt passed without any supernatural occurrences, we got creative. Working together, we pointed all our equipment at the biggest bloodstain in the north bedroom, attempting to channel its late owner, then directed our investigations to the backyard, where human bones had been found. But the best idea of the night came when a man pointed out that Brown's victims were all, to some extent, wealthy.

"Have you guys tried to do communications with money?" he asked Staples, who was just as invested in the hunt as the rest of us. At the question, the guide stopped, and a moment later, every hunter within earshot was rummaging through pockets and purses in search of cash.

We decided to go with a $1 bill, reasoning - inaccurately, in retrospect - that it was oldest of the printed bills, and thus the most likely to be recognized by the former merchants. Clutching the cash, we raced back up to the dark north bedroom and tossed the money into the center of the room.

"If you want it, come and get it," one woman challenged the spirits. "Come take it from me."

After a minute or two of taunting and coaxing, the Ovilus rewarded us with a single word:


In an instant, the previously dormant lights on some of the gadgets came to life. Then, another word was spoken.


All the hunters in the room looked around. Staples and I were still on our feet, but at the spirit's command, we quickly dropped to the ground. A couple others filtered into the room and stood by the doorway, but the spirit demanded obedience.


With new people coming into the room and excited chatter growing louder, the command went unheard by most, and the lights on the meters died down just as suddenly as they had sprung up. Barely anyone noticed. They'd all become distracted by what I soon found to be the best part of ghost hunting: story time.

Cloaked in darkness, the ghost enthusiasts started sharing their paranormal encounters like they were telling war stories.

One woman showed us the bruise she said she got from provoking a ghost on a previous hunt, while another described how her equipment's readings had fluctuated like the volume of an argument where a woman was killed by her husband. Staples told us the funniest response he's gotten to the question "Is anyone with us?" - "No. Haha." - and another girl told us the creepiest: "You're all going to die. Here."

By the time the night was over, I had not only become extremely paranoid of every creak and howl, I had also become a true believer - in ghost hunting, that is. Though I'll admit I'm a skeptic when it comes to the supernatural, the late-night activity offers plenty of laughs with new friends (especially ones who try to bribe spirits with pancakes) and a good ole-fashioned scare.

If you're truly looking for a fright, however, try staying behind after everyone leaves to take pictures, in my case for this article.

So many chills. Never again.