Mammoth Cave

Mammoth Cave is the largest known cave system in the world. It contains over 360 miles of passageways that have been used by humans for over 12,000 years. Not surprisingly, it also has a few ghostly inhabitants the most famous being Melissa and William.

In February 1858, The Knickerbocker published a deathbed confession titled "A Tragedy of Mammoth Cave" written by a woman who identifies herself only as "Melissa." Melissa was the spoiled only child of a Kentucky planter who lived in the shadow of Mammoth Cave. When she was seventeen, her father hired William Beverleigh from New England to tutor her. Melissa fell in love with young man's blonde hair and blue eyes, but when she confessed her affections to him he rejected her. Beverleigh eventually went to tutor a neighbor's son, John Haywood and eventually became engaged to John's sister, Minnie.

Consumed with bitterness and thoughts of revenge, Melissa often spent her time wandering about Mammoth Cave. It was on one such day when she happened to come across Beverleigh, his fiancée and several of their friends who had been brought into the cave by a local guide. Unfortunately for Beverleigh, the small boat that they had planned to use to travel up the Echo River to the opening was not large enough and he was left alone to wait for the guide to return. Seeing her opportunity for revenge, Melissa waited for the others to leave before offering to guide Beverleigh back.

On the way back, Melissa decided to play a trick and pretended to abandon Beverleigh. Her initial intention was to wait until he pleaded for her to return, but this never happened. Instead, Beverleigh turned around to go back the way they came. This enraged Melissa and she decided to leave him for real, anticipating he would spend a few tense hours lost in the cave before being found.

Unfortunately, Melissa's joke turned tragic. Beverleigh was never seen again. Searches looked for days but only found his lantern and his hat. According to Melissa, her guilt ate at her and she became "a constant wanderer in search of health and happiness." She never married and was battling a "deadly disease" when she wrote the confession. Her plans were "to reenter that dark Cave, the threshold of which I have not crossed for fifteen years, and there I will patiently wait the coming of that death, which I hope to me will be a blessed release. The gloom and horror to which, years ago, I doomed my victim, shall be around me when I die : for I think that perhaps amid the silent rocks which witnessed my crime, my last prayer for forgiveness will find acceptance."

Mammoth Cave in 1900
Mammoth Cave in 1900.

Melodramatic ends to a traumatic turn of events, but is the confession true? According to the letter, the events relayed took place around 1843. However, a search can find no record of any William Beverleigh dying in Kentucky in the 1840s or anywhere else in the United States. Nor is their any record of anyone disappearing in the cave in the 1840s.

The confession is actually a work of fiction written by Lillie Devereux Blake. According to Grace Farrell in her book, Lillie Devereux Blake: Retracing a Life Erased, Blake was inspired to write the story after visiting the cave with her husband. The story was then published anonymously in The Knickerbocker.

So why, if the story is false, to people continue to report seeing and hearing the ghosts of Melissa and William Beverleigh in the cave? Is it their imaginations playing tricks on them? If they had heard the tale before their experiences, that might be true, but this is not always the case.

Gary Bremer, a former tour guide at Mammoth Cave, told author Troy Taylor that he distinctly heard a woman searching for someone in the cave while sitting in a boat on the Echo River, yet he was unaware of Melissa's story until the next day. Bremer also said he was in the cave with a new employee who claimed to hear a woman coughing, which he believed later to be Melissa since some believe she suffered from tuberculosis.

However, Melissa never mentions what disease she is suffering from in her letter. However, there might be another explanation for the sounds. In 1841, the cave had been converted into a hospital for tuberculosis patients by Dr. John Crogan. The hospital closed ten months later after several patients died. Perhaps they are the source for the ghostly coughing.

People also report seeing a young man they believe to be William Beverleigh in the area known as Chief City. The man is wearing a black and white suit with a cummerbund, appropriate formal attire for men in the mid-to-late 1800s. Others report hearing a woman whispering or weeping in the cave that they believe to be Melissa's ghost.

Melissa and William are not the only ghosts that reside in Mammoth Cave. Two pairs of denim pants and heavy work boots without an upper torso run side-by-side down the grassy hill near the Visitor's Center. Stephen Bishop is also seen there. Bishop was a slave who was the first to map the caves and served as a tour guide until he died. He loved Mammoth Cave so much that he refused his chance for freedom because it would mean leaving it. Bishop is seen wearing white pants, a dark shirt, white vest and a Panama hat. Floyd Collins, former owner of a part of the cave known as Crystal Cave also has been seen. Collins became trapped in the cave in 1925 and died after all attempts to rescue him failed. His body was finally recovered two years later by the new owner and placed on display in the cave until 1989. Collins's voice is often heard calling out for help around the area where he died.

Most of Mammoth Cave is located inside Mammoth Cave National Park in central Kentucky. The park offers tours of the cave year round. For more information, call the Visitor Information Line at (270) 758-2180 or go to their web page.