It was a dark and stormy October night when Kelly and I arrived to Brantley and Jim’s home on Overton Park Street in Midtown. The house is on a slight rise and hidden by trees. I warned her about the steps, which were slick and steep. Then a man stepped from the shadows and startled us.
But this isn’t a scary Halloween story, not really.
It was just Jim, home from work. He said hello, and we followed him up. Brantley opened the door and greeted us before we’d even reached the top of the steps.
“I love your house,” said Kelly, who’d accompanied me to take photos.
The home of Brantley Ellzey and Jim Renfrow is warm and light and packed with family photos, books, art, pottery, antiques, a set of creepy cookie jars, and lots of other things, too—mementos of a life together. Right now, it’s decorated for Halloween.
But the house itself had a history before them, of course, and for a time, a secret life—secret to Brantley and Jim, at least.
Kelly and I know there’s a story; it’s why we’re here.
Brantley invites us back to the kitchen. Kelly and I take eager seats on the barstools of their kitchen island.
“Would you guys like something to drink?” Brantley asks, and we say yes, but he is stalling, building the suspense for us.
Then he begins to talk.
Little by little, down through the years, the story of Brantley and Jim’s home unfolded to them. They knew it was built in 1907. The first owners were listed on the census as a dad with two grown children. A housekeeper lived in back.
“Before the street cars, this place [was considered to be] out in the country,” said Brantley.
One day, two older ladies stopped by to say they’d lived in the house for several years, but had sold it in the 1960s to a couple who’d opened the property to boarders.
For a long time, that’s all they knew.
A few things puzzled them, like the weird locks on some of the doors.
“We couldn’t figure it out,” said Brantley. “Why would you put a lock on the outside of a bedroom door?”
There were pencil marks on the attic walls that must have meant something to someone once, but now were indecipherable.
There were strange notches cut into the attic wood.
Once when Brantley and Jim were doing renovations upstairs, they discovered an old closet space with a pair of ancient coil box springs sitting side-by-side.
“Talk about a creepy image,” said Brantley.
One day, while Jim worked in the yard, a man stopped and spoke to him.
This had been the man’s home for part of his childhood. In 1969 or 1970, he had lived here with his grandparents. He had been 11 or 12 years old at the time.
“Was it a boarding house then?” Jim had asked the man.
“Well, they had boarders,” the man offered.
Noticing Jim’s puzzled expression, the man began to tell the whole story.
“As it turns out, his grandparents had lived in Marion, Arkansas, as farmers,” said Jim. “They had to sell the farm, and they came to Memphis to make money, so they opened a boarding house.”
Jim gestures to the front of the home.
“The grandparents had lived in what’s now the dining room. The man had lived in the TV room as a boy. There were two women in each of the back bedrooms, and two more women in the unfinished basement,” said Jim.
“Wow,” I said and took a big sip of my drink. I was impressed by how many people had lived here.
“And in the upstairs where there’s the bedroom now and a big attic?” said Brantley. “That’s where there had been bunks, and 20 men had lived upstairs.”
Kelly and I gasped.
“No!” Kelly said.
“Did you say 20 men?” I asked. “Is that what you just said?”
It was all true.
Their home had been a halfway house for the Western Mental Health Institute in Bolivar (formerly the West Tennessee Hospital for the Insane). People who’d been locked up as “lunatics” lived here for a while, in this in-between place, before returning back to their normal lives.
“Neither of us is particularly superstitious,” said Brantley, “but we blame things on them.”
Did their keys get misplaced out of simple absentmindedness, or was a puckish spirit having fun at their expense?
“Someone announced to us once that this place had a ‘lot of spiritual energy,’” said Brantely. “People are always telling us things like that.”
There have been a few strange incidents.
Brantley gestures to a spot on the kitchen wall that holds four portraits of their beloved old dogs painted by local artist Celene Clark. Two of them are terriers, and all are now deceased.
“The two terriers were siblings, and they were both big on yawning. They’d wake up from a nap and give a big moaning yawn,” Brantley demonstrated opulently.
Kelly and I laughed.
“They were strangely vocal,” he said.
I could almost hear them. I’d witnessed or seen videos of dogs making all sorts of noises, including this one of a small dog whose howl sounds like a man screaming.
He leaned in close and lowered his voice to almost a whisper.
“So one night when we were both asleep, we heard what sounded like a human saying, ‘Hellooooo!’” said Brantley.
“Oh my god!” said Kelly.
“Yikes!” I said.
“’Did you hear that?’ I said to Jim.”
“I think it was the dog,” Jim said.
“Turn the light on!” Brantley said.
But when Jim turned the light on, there was nothing there.
Had it been the dog—or the restless spirit of one of the lunatics? The incident remains one of the mysteries of the house.
We talk for a while about hauntings. I don’t believe in ghosts, but Kelly says she’s experienced something.
Once in high school, when Kelly was over at a friend’s house for dinner, there was a knock on the back door. Her friend’s father called out, “Come in!” but no one came inside. Everyone at the dinner table just looked at each other because it was strange that a person had knocked on the door, only to disappear. A moment later, Kelly felt a breath over her right shoulder. She looked around the table. Her friend’s father looked startled. Clearly something had happened to him, too.
“Did you feel that?” he asked her.
Kelly and Brantley had both lived in New Orleans as college students, and Kelly remembered the havoc the rising waters wreaked on the resting places of the dead.
“You’d find bits of clothing and bone and the fittings of caskets after the water had gone back down,” said Kelly.
Brantley talked about the ancient Peruvians and how they kept their mummies around in their daily lives.
“They’d prop grandma in the corner,” said Brantley. “They just thought she was super quiet…but good if you needed a hug.”
Jim said the man who stopped by their house that day had only happy memories of living there. He doesn’t stay in Memphis anymore, but when he comes in town, he always finds a reason to walk or drive past. Surely he wouldn’t do that if anything terrible had happened here.
Brantley and Jim don’t think any of the Bolivar patients came to harm in this house.
Freed from the extremely restrictive environment of Bolivar, yet still detached from the day-to-day stress of their normal lives, these halfway house residents of Overton Park Street may have felt optimistic about their futures–and then filled the home with their happy vibes.