Haunted Tennessee just got a whole lot closer to home.
Located on the corner of Cumberland and Gay Street, The Bijou Theatre is one of the oldest buildings in Knoxville. Built in 1817 as a hotel originally called the Lamar House, the building has continuously switched through the hands of different owners over the past 200 years — all of which supposed several different purposes for the landmark.
What most people don’t know is the number of deaths surrounding the theatre, producing one of the most haunted structures in Tennessee.
At the start of the Civil War, the hotel was converted into a hospital for both Union and Confederate soldiers, which was the excuse for many shootings and fighting among the opposing groups. General William P. Sanders is the most well-known casualty of the war in the Bijou and is buried right at the entrance of Krutch Park next to Market Square, according to J- Adam Smith, director of Haunted Knoxville Ghost Tours.
“Knoxville has the potential to be one of the most haunted places in America due to its history,” Smith said.
However, the theater didn’t always hold the same level of respectability it does now. The building has been a brothel, an adult film house and even a fruit stand during its rich history. The Bijou has hosted many different kinds of aspirations, events and especially an eclectic mix of people.
Smith goes on to explain “haunted locations are based off trauma,” and the Bijou is not lacking in that department. In an unsettled time period such as the early 1800s, fights were common, and the customers brought into the then-brothel were hardly hesitant about using weapons.
According to Martha Boggs, owner of The Bistro at the Bijou,“most of the phenomenon with hauntings are associated with the Lamar House.” The then-hotel hosted a lot of stress in the period leading up to the Civil War and experts in the field say those types of experiences tend to leave a mark on buildings.
In 2006, the East Tennessee Paranormal Research Society conducted an investigation on the spirits residing in the historic theater. The team spent months consulting various video footage and EVP (electronic voice phenomenon) as well as even spending the night in hopes of encountering a ghost.
The result was several voice recordings of residual spirits including a conclusive video of a small figure darting past the camera in the fourth floor bathroom.
According to the Manchester Paranormal Investigations, a residual haunting is unique when it comes to ghost hauntings. A residual haunting is not caused by a restless spirit but rather it is a recording of the past that inexplicably replays itself.
The belief is that structures can sometimes act as natural recorders and store energy and memories of the past inside materials such a stone, wood or bedrock. Examples of residuals can include audio of a bellboy asking ‘May I take your bags, sir?’ or a couple asking about a show about to go on.
Finding spirits at the Bijou is not just for the professionals. There are several videos on YouTube displaying different audio recordings taken by various people of unexplained noises and voices. Perusing through the comment section of the video, regardless of whether or not the experiences are true or false, shows that many people seem to have had some sort of spiritual experience while at the Bijou.
One unnamed commentator wrote about his experience in the hotel.
“Those ghosts like unplugging vacuums as well as making you feel watched every second you’re in there,” he said.
Boggs has experienced the phenomenon herself. As the owner of the Bistro, Boggs said she spends a lot of time closing and opening the theatre by herself, and quite often, she hears her name being called by the same female voice.
When asked how she deals with the paranormal on a daily basis, Boggs responded casually.
“You just have to sit down and go about your business,” she said.
Not a stranger to the invisible life inside the theater, Boggs shared an encounter when she was checking the lobby doors one night.
“Somebody grabbed the back of my shirt, and it was icy cold. When I turned around there was no one there,” she said. “I don’t think that encounter can be explained.”
However in spite of her experiences, Boggs has yet to face a ghost head on.
“I would like to meet a ghost. I’ve got questions for them,” Boggs laughed.
A full history as well as the upcoming list of events at the historic Bijou is posted on their website, www.knoxbijou.com. And for more information and perhaps a sighting of the ghosts of Knoxville, check out Haunted Knoxville Ghost tours, named by the television show “Ghost Hunters” as the “hidden gem of haunted America.”