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Halloween at Belmont: Legends of Bell Tower, tunnels don’t match facts

The legends all exist. For decades, students have heard stories about Adelecia Acklen, tunnels on campus and maybe even quirky collections. As for what’s true about all these things, the facts can be a little shaky. Mark Brown, the executive director of the Belmont Mansion, speaks up to dispel some of them.

The tunnels

There are two places on campus that look like tunnels to who knows where. One is by the greenhouse and the other, most questioned, is in front of the Bell Tower. They look like staircases into the ground with a grate over the top. Legend has it that either of these tunnels went from the Bell Tower to the mansion for servants to travel on or that they were used for the Underground Railroad during The Civil War.

Brown’s professional, historical input: “There are no tunnels. There never were any tunnels.”

The “tunnel” by the greenhouse was the entrance to a basement. The way greenhouses operated in 1857 was by heating a furnace underneath it, allowing the heat to rise to create the correct temperature for the plants.

The one in front of the Bell Tower originally had pipes laid in it to bring water to the fountains.

Brown says these “tunnels” were built in 1859, two years before The Civil War. He says the Acklen family, who had the mansion and grounds created as a summer villa, might have been foresighted but knowing that far ahead of time “probably would be stretching it just a bit.”

Another myth-buster that Brown pointed out was that Adelecia Acklen owned 750 slaves, so her alleged involvement with the Underground Railroad was probably zero.

Adelecia Acklen

Adelecia, the center of Belmont’s roots, is accused of many things. Promiscuity, ill will and partying are some of the character traits that have been heard around campus. The truth: People have had their facts wrong, Brown said.

Different numbers have been spouted off for how many husbands she had. Along with it there are rumors of Adelecia having the first prenuptial agreement in Tennessee. Brown says she had three husbands though, but she was widowed twice and died in 1887, 13 years before her third husband. (She had, however, moved to Washington without him a year before she died.) Did she have the first pre-nup? Nope. She did have prenuptial agreements with husbands two and three to protect her wealth and property, since she was one of the wealthiest women in America at the time. But Brown said many in Tennessee had entered into prenuptial agreements before her time.

Adelecia was most certainly a socialite in Nashville. Legends say this is all she did, though, and charge that she was somewhat careless with her children and husbands.

Brown says she was just a “divisive figure in Nashville.” A letter between Adelecia and one of her sisters talks about her dating one of the Polks, as in a relative of President James K. Polk. In it she says all of Nashville is talking about the courtship.

“She lived a much more flamboyant, and public life than, say, the Overtons did,” said Brown, referring to another wealthy and influential Nashville family. Because of her non-traditional lifestyle, Adelicia was judged perhaps more readily than others, thus creating the legends of carelessness.

Why did so many of Adelecia’s children die?

Brown talked of a legend that seems to have been lost to time. Her second husband, Col. Joseph Alexander Smith Acklen, was said to have bought a statue of an angel for Adelecia. The angel holds three things in one hand and a cup in the other. The legend says the three things were sleeping pills she planned to give to her children and the cup had wine it because she was partying downstairs.

Brown said the legend is wrong on two fronts.

First, the statue was made to portray a poem by Joseph Moore that showed the three tiers of a penitent sinner and the cup of the water of eternal life.

Second, Joseph did not buy it to remind Adelecia of what a bad mother she was. In reality, she purchased it herself following Joseph’s death.

Legends such as this make people wonder why six of her 10 children died by the age of 11. Brown says the child mortality rate was 40 percent at the time. A child dying young was, sadly, quite common.

Adelecia’s animals

The word is Adelecia Acklen had a collection of odd animals, as in monkeys or gators in a moat around the Bell Tower. And as it turns out, most of this is true, Brown said. There are records of the Acklens owning animals ranging from deer to a bear to a mountain lion. Monkeys lived in a cast iron cage where Belmont’s art building is today. And there is no truth to the rumor that alligators lived in a moat around the Bell Tower, but several gators did make their home in a lake where the athletic house now sits.

As for Adelecia deciding she wanted all of these animals, well, the records suggest that it was more likely that it was her husband Joseph’s idea.

Some say Belmont was the first zoo in Tennessee. Brown thinks this is unlikely, but it very well could have been the first zoo in Nashville. Belle Meade apparently claims they had one first but its collection of animals extended only to deer and possibly bison. It looks like Belmont wins.

One of the undocumented legends is related to the gators. It is said that one day the scaly reptiles got loose and were walking around on Hillsboro Pike. Brown doesn’t know if this is true or not. If it is, it must have caused quite a commotion.

Adelecia’s death and will

In 1887 Adelecia moved to Washington D.C. She was building a new home there and was in the process of selling the Belmont Mansion to a land development company. Later in the year, while on a shopping trip for furniture in New York City, she died at the age of 70.

Legends say Adelecia stated in her will that she wanted Belmont to be a place for education. Surprisingly, this is a total myth.

“Show me the documents,” Brown said.

The only thing she asked the potential buyers was that she be allowed to leave her furniture in storage at Belmont until her home in D.C. was completed.

She died before this could happen though. While the estate was being settled, Miss Herron and Miss Hood, two teachers from Columbia, Tenn., are said to have seen the Bell Tower and knew it would be a “great site for a woman’s school.”

Whether or not the women actually decided on the land in that way is uncertain, but it was not Adelecia’s original plan to have a university on her property. Brown says it seems as if there was some sentimental value to the mansion but in the end she had contracted to sell it and didn’t care what the new owners did with the land.

—Pierce Greenberg and Chelsea Reed Kallman

Celebrating on Campus

Aaah, that time of year has come again, the time to scare others, including yourself; to wear the most hilariously scandalous costumes; and to party, of course! Yes, folks, fall arrived, fall break is over and now it’s time for students to celebrate Halloween 2010.

Halloween 5K: It’s not only a good excuse to dress up and show off, but it’s a chance to do enough exercise that you can justify eating a pound of candy corn. Join Fitness and Recreation for a 5K run, free participation and a costume contest. The group will start in front of the Curb and circle the campus. Oct. 28, 6- 8 p.m., Beaman SLC Lower West Lobby (facing Belmont Boulevard)

Boo Bash: The sorority sisters in Phi Mu and Alpha Gamma Delta will put on a Halloween party complete with the essentials for a good party: a DJ, a haunted maze, a costume/fashion show and whatever else they can think of. A fee of $1 will be charged at the door, but all proceeds will be shared between the two sororities’ charities. Oct. 29. 7-9:30 p.m. Neely Dining Hall

BSA 2nd Annual Halloween Party: Belmont’s Black Student Association will host its 2nd annual Halloween party, complete with food, music and many other activities. Come dressed up – there will be a mysterious prize for the best costume. There’s a  $3 charge, and all proceeds will go to purchase disposable cameras that will be donated to Haywood Elementary School for a project to promote cultural awareness. Oct. 29, 7-10 p.m., Bruin Hills Clubhouse

2010 Pembroke Haunted House: Pembroke will become a haunted house involving some of Belmont’s old, eerie history. The dorm, one of the oldest on campus, and its residents will also include a plot line involving Adelicia Acklen, the first resident of the Belmont mansion on the hill. She sold her home in 1886 and died the following year, but it’s rumored that she still haunts the place. There will be no charge, but all donations will go to Trick or Treat UNICEF, an international charity effort. And for just a dollar, you can buy a Pembroke date auction DVDs. Oct. 29, 8-10 p.m., Pembroke Hall lobby —By Dulce Torres

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