Shedding light on Gatlinburg’s legends, lore, and ghosts

The Legend of Simon Craft – Gatlinburg’s Craft Family Cannibals

In the aftermath of the American Civil War, it was not uncommon for a grateful U.S. government to bestow upon its more distinguished and higher-ranking officers some quite sizeable parcels of territory, some far beyond the scope allowed under the Homestead Act.  This was, in part, for compensation for their military service, but also for what we might see today as a progressive recognition of and treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress.  In other words, Uncle Sam gave the vets their breathing space, to help them recover from the mental scars of combat.

A lesser known fact: This graciousness wasn’t reserved exclusively for Union officers!  On the contrary, even veterans of the Confederacy were allotted such giant plots of land, up to 160 acres, permitted they first signed an affidavit of allegiance to the government.  Former Confederate Colonel Simon J. Craft was the recipient of such a generously deeded parcel, in his case a lovely but remote plot which nestled between peaceful Pigeon Forge in eastern Tennessee and the vast territories of the Cherokee Nation.

Many a man would have kindly refused so isolated a field, situated as it was amongst the ranges of the Pine and Cove Mountains.  Yet Craft’s betters knew him well, and recommended the allotment area intentionally…not only for his well-being but for the sake of others.  For Craft had developed a nasty reputation during the war, a very nasty reputation indeed.

And so there in that lonesome valley, once the hunting grounds of the Cherokee warriors, the retired colonel found refuge from the company of his fellow man, preferring the ruggedness of life in the wild over the cloying political correctness of society.  Were such psychiatric diagnoses available in those days, one might have concluded the good colonel was a sociopath.  In point of fact, Craft’s superior officers knew he was far, far worse than that.

A bit of history: Craft’s habits and attitudes were well documented since his earliest days in service, and were such that he was marked “irritable and cantankerous around others,” even as a young second lieutenant.  Outrageously condescending to his fellows, Craft, a headstrong graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, was all-too-well known for being, as one instructor put it, “brighter than a full moon over a clear pond, yet as distant from his peers as planets to the Sun.”  He was not, therefore, considered “leadership material.”

But in matters of military prowess, Simon Craft was a natural tactician–a fact which could not be ignored by the desperate Confederate generals who sorely needed smart, ruthless leaders to lead their units, which were being decimated in many areas.  Eventually Craft came to the attention of no less a person than Brigadier General John Breckinridge, who duly noted Craft’s problems lay in the disconcerting mannerisms of the disturbed lad, oddities which alienated his men whilst giving him an objectivity found in few others.  To be blunt, Craft didn’t seem to give a damn about people, and it was that callousness that gave him clarity, an edge sorely needed in battle.

Craft was known to be a life-long meat eater who detested vegetables and mocked his subordinates for eating them.  In the field he banned the consumption of bread and even fruit, for being fattening and “bad for the digestive system,” as he once wrote in his predominately destroyed journal.  During the war the commander led his regiment in several fierce campaigns, from Shiloh to Chattanooga.  Yet one of the bloodiest battles, oft stricken from the history books, was the 1862 battle unofficially known at Irish Rose.  There, the gentleman earned his loathed moniker, Craft the Carnivore.  Caught by his own men licking blood from the face of a fallen Union troop, then Captain Craft was later reprimanded by his commander officer for conduct unbecoming an officer.  It was not to be his final deed of misconduct, and certainly not his worst.

In another 1862 battle, the details of which were also swept under the proverbial rug, Craft, by then a major, ordered his men to not only butcher but literally filet their enemies.  Several refused the unlawful order, and were summarily shot by Craft and his cadre of loyalists.  The incident was duly noted but never fully pursued.  After all, Craft had won the battle and those who’d disobeyed were “merely uneducated enlisted privates and sergeants” who were easily replaced.

Minor incidents aside, Craft was able to rise to the rank of colonel just as the war was coming to its bloody conclusion.  The powers that be were happy enough to issue him, his wife, Isabella, and twin sons, Jacob and Jeremiah, 160 acres with a 20 acre field in a clearing, complete with equipment for cutting trees as a means of post-retirement income.  Both the equipment and the muscular twin boys were put to good work and, within a decade, Craft (at just 47 years of age) had made his fortune and commissioned the construction of the infamous Craft Manor.

For their twentieth anniversary, Isabella begged her dissociated husband to invite guests to their completed mansion, for what was the point of wealth if one could not display it?  Besides which, life in the deep wilderness could become quite tedious when one had no company other than the trees.  And so, as Fate would have it, Craft agreed to the winter party, to celebrate their many years of matrimony as well as to ascertain whether or not the outside world still disparaged Craft “the Carnivore” and his antisocial ways.

The guests arrived at C–old officers and their spouses, a handful of Tennessee business magnates from Knoxville, who sometimes ordered lumber for their own homes from the Craft & Sons Lumber Mill.  All in all, twenty-three couples came to feast on the all-meat extravaganza.  Turkey, rabbit, quail, wild boar, even bison–all the animal protein one could imagine was on display, and cooked to juicy perfection.  The party went over spectacularly…however none had predicted one of the worst blizzards in American history was gearing up to dump over 40 inches of snow on them, blocking all routes out and killing most of the wildlife in the surrounding area.

For three months the freezing wintery conditions persisted.  The fresh meat had run out after the first month, and, with virtually nothing to scavenge out-of-doors, the Craft family and their long-suffering guests soon came to an inescapable conclusion.  If they were to survive, they must eat.  And only one thing remained to eat.

Each other. 

The details surrounding the massacre which took place are scarce, and nearly all come from the deathbed confession of Colonel Douglas B. McVicker, one of the guests and a compatriot, if not exactly a “friend,” ofCraft’s.  The confession, jotted down by his nurse in 1889, chronicles the events in their gruesome detail:

“Craft knew precisely what must be done, as he always did.  He was a decision-maker, all through the war.  It is what kept him alive.  And so he made a decision that December, to murder his guests and keep them for food.  He approached me to assist.  There was never any question of ‘morality’ or whatnot.  It was a pragmatic decision and I agreed with it.  Not wholeheartedly, but…I agreed.  My wife, Jessica–may she rest in peace–wanted nothing to do with the killings.  Well, she wasn’t a trained soldier, as me and ol’ Craft were.  It wasn’t in her blood, to just go and shoot some person or to stab them through the heart with a Bowie.  And I can’t say I enjoyed it. But I did it.  Me and Craft, we did it together.  We butchered them all.  And one by one, we–along with his wife and boys and Jessica–we ate them.”

Prior to this confession it was not known what had become of the missing families.  Craft had told the local law enforcement agency that the guests had not, in fact, ever arrived, and so it was presumed they’d become lost along the way.  Implausible, perhaps…but none were in a position to dispute the wealthy timber magnate, and with unlimited area to bury the evidence, Craft easily covered his tracks.

Where the tale becomes even more foreboding is how, exactly, the malevolent Craft was able to persuade the rest of his family into cannibalism.  Of course, it was a case of do-or-die…but did he somehow manipulate them into participating?  According to McVicker, yes.

“Craft wasn’t good with people, because he hated most of ‘em.  But he knew how to weave a story when he had to, and that’s what he did that first night.  He and I had told our families to go into their bed chambers and lock the doors, and not open them up no matter what they heard.  And God knows what they heard–they heard screams and gunshots and bloody murder.  And then when Craft went back to the rooms and banged on the door, he told them–it was Providence which had brought all those people to Craft Manor.  It was the Lord Himself who’d delivered the food, right upon their doorstep.  And it was only through bravery that they could survive, by cutting up and cooking the food.  The…people.” 

And so, cut and cook, they did.

Decades later the remains of the guests were discovered and identified, along with preparation notes made by Isabella herself.  A fair chef, she’d apparently gone to some lengths to make the unfamiliar flesh tasty, experimenting with various sautéing techniques, including one especially revolting sauce known as “Blood Milk.”  Legend has it the boys became so enamored with the dishes their mother prepared that they demanded more, even after the winter had thawed and life returned to “normal.”  But naturally, catching and consuming individuals to have for supper was a dangerous pastime, and so the Crafts, according to local rumor, limited themselves to a yearly banquet of human meat…a custom passed down from the boys to their own sons, and so on over the years.

Despite various defamation lawsuits, the modern Craft families of Tennessee remain plagued by brutish insinuations that there are still among them certain members who participate in the annual feast of flesh.  These foul rumors have no basis in fact, and are naturally to be paid no heed whatsoever.

That said: If you do find yourself invited to a dinner party by the Crafts, it doesn’t hurt to keep one fact in mind–according to Simon Craft himself, “As I always tell my family when we go hunting, make sure to kill the meatiest specimens first, for they’re the absolute tastiest.”  

Post a Comment

Your email is kept private. Required fields are marked *