For years, I have passed the signs reading “Madeline’s Uniques & Antiques” when driving back to Chattanooga from Nashville and thought, “I ought to stop and see if they have anything for the Chattanooga Ghost Tours, Inc curiosity shop.” So when I was driving back from a conference on Saturday March 25, 2017, I decided it was time to finally check that Manchester store out.
It turned out to be one those places with a variety of individually owned booths, where the shop would ring up all sales and distribute money later. When I inquired whether they had any oddities like two-headed creatures, they responded they didn’t have anything with multiple heads, but if I was looking for oddities, I should check out the booth in the back near the corner.
As soon as I approached, my eye was caught by a peculiar skull contained within a pentagram, sitting high up on a heating duct. It got my attention because it reminded me of the Baphomet stained glass created by the victim in my recent true crime book, The Corpsewood Manor Murders in North Georgia.
The Baphomet, an inverted goat’s head pentagram, is the symbol and trademark of the Church of Satan, with which that victim was associated. While this pentagram was not inverted, and the skull was not that of a goat, but according to the shop, a deer, the resemblance was close enough to bring it to mind. However, there was no ladder in the booth to get it, and it was not even clear whether the skull was for sale.
I looked around the booth and found a similar skull on the ground with a clearly marked price tag, and initially picked it up to buy it. However, the elevated skull called to me, and I knew the one on the ground just wouldn’t satisfy. For one thing, the skull on the duct appeared to have a miniature version of itself replicated at its top, while the one on the ground had no such detail.
So I hunted down someone from the shop and asked if THAT skull was for sale and whether they had a ladder to get it down. As it turned out, not only had the booth owner put the skull out of reach, he had also marked it at a significantly higher price. Did I take the hint? NO. I talked them into giving me the skull at the price of the other one. During this time, a freak thunderstorm had popped up outside. I waited a few minutes for it to stop pouring, but finally gave up and ran to the car with the skull, getting drenched in the process. (Later reviews of the weather in Manchester that day assert that there was no precipitation whatsoever that day. I beg to differ.)
I brought the skull with me to the shop the following night for the tour. There were no apparent problems at my shop, but the very next day, the walls of the adjoining restaurant in the building, Cheeburger Cheeburger, had bowed out so badly, the restaurant closed to the public Tuesday. A building inspection a few days before had not yielded any problems serious enough to require closure of any business, nor even notice to us that it had taken place.
Around 1:30 pm on Wednesday March 29, Cheeburger owners Charlie Eich and his wife were inside the building when they heard an ominous creaking. They left the building, and seconds later, the entire restaurant side collapsed. Mysteriously, the ghost tour shop where the skull resided remained untouched. However, the damage was such that the entire building was condemned. We were not allowed back in the shop, but when the firemen graciously went in the shop to get our contents out, one of the first things saved was –what else?- the skull.
Just in case the strong suspicion now forming in my mind turned out to be correct, the skull has not been allowed in the new shop or any other building, but was instead relegated to my back porch. The next day, I messaged Madeline’s to say I would like to contact that booth’s owner for any history he might be able to provide about the skull, like whether it was, I don’t know, CURSED?! They responded that he was out of the country and they would ask him when he got back. They have repeatedly ducked my inquiries and said “he got them on his travels, no more info,” not even where it came from, and have to date not given me any contact information for the owner.
Unfortunately, the curse of the skull did not stop there. Not long after the building collapsed, our lead guide Hope got struck by a car when walking back to her vehicle after the tour. She remained out on leave due to the injuries she suffered the entire time the skull remained with us. Another guide who also does trolley tours here in town wrecked her trolley. Shortly thereafter, our lead hunt guide had to have emergency surgery, and hunts were cancelled for that. We also had to cancel several tours because of the storms that have persisted since we brought the skull back. This was particularly onerous as, right before we acquired the skull, we had been named one of two Tennessee Small Business Champions in the SCORE & Sam’s Club American Small Business Championship, and half the qualification to win the national competition was growing the business. Finally, our second lead tour guide had a crisis in his business, and as a result is only able to do tours on Sundays for the foreseeable future. Four of our six guides had been put out of commission within a few short weeks.
On a number of occasions, the neighbor’s dog took the skull off the porch and my husband told me the skull was gone. But just as I was about to breathe a sigh of relief, I would find the skull back in the grass next to the porch. Despite all the gnawing on it, the skull remained completely intact, not losing so much as a tooth. We threw in the towel and started contacting potential collectors of cursed objects.
We hit the jackpot with Planet Weird/Week in Weird founders Greg Newkirk and Dana Matthews. It took a little while for them to make it to Chattanooga to pick up the skull, as their trip to the Bermuda Triangle (we’re not kidding) intervened, but finally, on June 15, Greg and Dana made it here. It had been such a pretty day that my husband had come home at lunch to put the boat in for the season, but shortly after he arrived and right before Greg and Dana called to say they were here, the heavens opened. I don’t mean drizzle, or even just rain- it POURED.
As I lifted the skull off the porch, this skull which had held up just fine through being chewed by a dog, carried off, and God knows what else with no visible damage whatsoever, shed a tiny flake. Fortunately, it caught my eye- I was not about to let even the tiniest portion of the skull remain behind at my home. It all went into a box. When I arrived, I delivered the box directly to their car, so that it did not go into so much as the parking lot of the new building. We went into the shop once the skull was safely locked away in their trunk, to chat about our experiences with it. The rain became even harder, so that great sheets were coming off the awning over our door. Finally they were able to slip out during a brief break. Shortly after they pulled away the storm stopped.
Almost immediately, after weeks of no improvement, Hope began to get better, and has resumed doing ghost hunts. The number of guests increased, so that in less than 3 weeks, we have exceeded the number of guests from the previous 31 days. Most importantly, we have not been afflicted with any other disasters! We wish Planet Weird great luck with the skull, and thank them profusely for taking it off our hands. They are running tests on it now, and if they determine it to be safe, they will put it in their Traveling Museum of the Paranormal and Occult, where you can see it for yourself- if you dare.