Old Nance was featured in a few old books, such as Spirit of the Mountains, by Emma B. Miles. This little known haunting is remarkably and uncannily similar to the Bell Witch episode on the other side of the state. We’re left wondering how such contrasting public sentiments came from the same era, in the same state. Maybe it was the fact that the Beaver family was not as wealthy, or as well known, as the Bell family that created such a difference. The term “Old Sugarmouth” was a very suspicious title given to a minister friend of the Beaver Family. No specific dates have ever been given for this activity, but it was an old legend by the turn of the Twentieth Century.
This leaves us to wonder if it is really the same story, with names and details altered due to word-of mouth, or was the same entity behind the Bell haunting also behind the Beaver family struggle. Was the Beaver family haunting an experiment, or were there any similarities at all? Unfortunately, the answer may never be found.
The Beaver family lived in the Cumberland Mountains of Eastern Tennessee during the Nineteenth Century. Bill Beaver lived with his wife, Sarah, and a number of children. Their eldest daughter, Rose Ann, was married and lived in Arkansas with her husband.
Old Nance surprised the family when she unexpectedly arrived. She began to visit repeatedly, and then her stays grew so frequent it seemed she never left at all. She grew to be a hateful, incorporeal extension of the Beaver family. She first visited by way of strange noises, knocking, scratching, and rapping. Eventually she began to play pranks on the home’s inhabitants and visitors.
The spirit had a sharp, cackling laugh. No one ever witnessed her, but Bill admitted he dreamed of the old shrew many times. Most people couldn’t tolerate her presence. Even those people she claimed to have fondness for couldn’t tolerate her sharp tongue or her cruelty. She claimed to be the angry spirit of an old woman, but couldn’t give any details as to who she was or why she tortured the Beaver family.
The spirit presented many explanations, but none were true. She once declared Bill Beaver plowed up her bones, but he knew that wasn’t true. She claimed he wronged her over land, or over business, but Bill knew those accusations weren’t true, either. She eventually said she did it because Bill Beaver was a “mean man.”
The spirit tormented the family regularly, most often with a horrendous rotting stench that permeated the entire cabin. It could make the smell so strong the family had to leave the house entirely. It could manipulate food to smell rotten, even if freshly prepared. Sarah prepared some fresh bread one day, and no one could eat it after it was cooked. The family even sat the warm bread in front of the dog, which wouldn’t touch it. The spirit often slapped and hit the children, even the family’s 2-year-old. Oddly enough, the baby’s crying pushed Nance over the edge one evening. The spirit proclaimed that if they didn’t make the child be quiet, she would. The family could do nothing to settle the baby, so Nance spanked the child.
These weren’t the only feats Nance performed. She also tampered with small items and hid them in strange places. Sarah couldn’t leave anything alone. She stepped away from the butter churn to finish supper one evening and Nance dumped a shovel of ashes in the churn, on top of the cream.
Unlike Lucy Bell, Sarah Beaver had no tolerance or sentiment for Nance. She hated it. It tormented the children as much as it did her. Old Nance deemed poor Bill “Old Leatherhead,” and declared she would follow him to the ends of the earth, and the end of his days.
She was an impossible spirit who broadcasted neighbor’s secrets. Eventually, she turned most of the Beaver family against Bill, due to her unrestrained speech. Eventually, relatives and neighbors alike avoided the Beaver house. Unlike the Bell haunting, there were no groups of strangers wanting a glimpse of the activity at the Beaver home. Old Nance kept the family isolated. Even those who had no choice but to visit wouldn’t venture nearer than the front porch.
Bill pleaded with Nance for information. He wanted to know where she came from. He begged to know how to make things right, but the spirit couldn’t say.
Old Nance became truly irate when the family minister visited. She pulled the covers from his bed and began calling him “Old Sugarmouth,” just as the Bell Witch did with James Johnson. Ministers tried to exorcise the spirit, but none could match battle with Nance. Their prayers were always interrupted by the horrible smells, or the vicious taunts. Witchdoctors visited with the hopes of killing the spirit with a silver bullet, but none were given the opportunity. The spirit would escort them off the property with bawdy songs, unbelievable profanity, whistles, and noises of all kinds.
The family’s prayer meetings made Nance angry. She did her best to break them up. One of the favorite ways to interrupt prayers was by revealing humiliating information about those in attendance. The spirit seemed to know everything and could recount any dark deed committed years before. At one particular meeting, the spirit went into a fit of its own. No one recalled exactly what set it off, but the fit was worse than any before. It cursed, whistled, and sang until the entire house was empty. It even followed everyone out into the yard.
Despite its orneriness, there were moments when it exhibited a tender side, another facet of the Beaver haunting that is oddly similar to that of the Bell witch. On extremely rare occasions, the spirit almost exhibited compassion. Once, Sarah became too ill to eat. Nance continually asked what she would like to eat. The spirit also kept flies and bees away from her sick room.
Several brave visitors came to visit Sarah one evening after she’d been bedridden for some time. They discussed about how wonderful fresh strawberries would be. A few hours later, a bowl of fresh strawberries appeared before Sarah. She was too ill to eat, so the spirit then made them disappear.
Another unusual event happened one night when Bill and his sons were gone. A drunken neighbor barged into the Beaver household. He declared he was staying there for the night. The women of the home were frightened of the belligerent man. Old Nance did not like him, or his scaring the family. She slapped him around and then dragged him from the house by his nose. He did not return to the Beaver property.
Unfortunately, Nance grew even crueler to Bill as time passed. He was found dead one morning, after what his family thought was a peaceful night of sleep. They always believed she killed him with her witchcraft.
Once, “Old Leatherhead,” was gone, the witch disappeared. As far as is known, she never bothered the Beaver family again. The reasons for her visits were never established and the family’s struggle remains nearly lost to time.
Spirit of the Mountains, by Emma B. Miles, James Pott & Co., New York, 1905.
This legend hails from Northeast Tennessee.