Elizabeth Bellamy passed from this world 181 years ago yesterday. We explore the true story of her passing in Elizabeth Bellamy died 181 years ago today.
Today, we focus on the story of her ghost and how it evolved into the tale of a burning bride at Bellamy Bridge. The following is excerpted from Dale Cox’s book The Ghost of Bellamy Bridge: 10 Ghosts & Monsters from Jackson County, Florida:
– Excerpt –
As the years passed and strife tore apart the once close-knit family, the slaves on Edward Bellamy’s plantation began to tell each other of the mysterious woman in white who arose from her grave to walk in the night. She carried with her an unnatural glow and her heart-rending moans struck horror into the hearts of even the bravest men.
Edward Bellamy left Jackson County shortly before the War Between the States, abandoning the beautiful mansion near the wooden bridge that had come to bear his name. The house eventually succumbed to accidental fire, but the old bridge survived. It was replaced and rebuilt several times through the years and eventually replaced with the steel-frame structure that served travelers for much of the 20th century. It survived through the years, a reminder of the optimistic young doctor who had arrived in Jackson County with his beautiful young bride many years before.
The story of Elizabeth’s ghost also survived. Stories were told of how she appeared each night, searching for her love who already lay buried in an unmarked grave far away. The ghost story, in fact, grew substantially over the years. The ruins of Edward and Ann’s mansion near the bridge came to be associated with the story of a terrible wedding night disaster and some claimed that Elizabeth’s spirit could be seen running from the house site to Bellamy Bridge, engulfed in flame that illuminated the night with brilliant light. Others described the ghost as a ball of fire that fell from the sky into the river by the bridge on certain nights when conditions were right.
It is easy to understand how the tragic lives of Elizabeth and Samuel Bellamy could have given rise to a multitude of ghost stories, but comprehending how their story could have evolved into the tale of the “burning bride of Bellamy Bridge” is a bit more difficult. The answer to the mystery lies in the writings of a 19th century novelist perhaps best known as the author of the Southern rebuttal to Harriett Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Caroline Lee Hentz was a prolific author much loved in her day for a noteworthy series of romantic novels. With her husband, Nicholas, she traveled from city to city across much of the eastern United States, living at times in North Carolina, Ohio, Alabama, Georgia and finally Florida. She had been a member of the same literary guild as Stowe, but took great exception to the portrayal of slavery and the South as given in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In her rebuttal, titled Planter’s Northern Bride, she tried to give the view of the Southern elite and their slaves about the matter. It was, of course, a much romanticized view, but to her credit Mrs. Hentz was quick to recognize the intellectual and artistic abilities of individual African Americans. She once played an important role, for example, in the development and literary education of a talented African American poet and actively attempted to secure his freedom from slavery.
In 1853, three years before she died in Marianna, Mrs. Hentz published a fascinating little volume that she titled Marcus Warland or the Long Moss Spring.
The title and the fact that she spent much of the final two years of her life in Marianna or in a summer cottage at St. Andrew Bay led many in later years to assume that the book was written in and about Jackson County. The “long moss spring” of the title, in fact, is still widely believed to have been Blue Springs near Marianna, although in fact the association is incorrect.
In reality, Caroline Hentz wrote Marcus Warland while she was living in Columbus, Georgia, prior to relocating to Florida. It was based largely on the people and places she observed in that area and is unique because of the detail it gives to daily events in a plantation slave community. The book also provides a detailed account of the death of a young woman named Cora who, having exhausted herself dancing on her wedding night, went upstairs to rest briefly before rejoining the party:
…Turning away she threw herself into a large easy-chair in front of the fire, and in spite of the excited state of her feelings and the extreme want of sentiment evinced by the act, she fell asleep in her downy next. She had been up almost all the preceding night, on her feet all day, and had been dancing with such extraordinary enthusiasm, that the soft cushion and gentle warmth of the room soother her to instantaneous repose. How long she slept, she knew not. She was awakened by a sense of heat and suffocation, as if her lungs were turned to fire. Starting up she found herself encircled by a blaze of light that seemed to emanate from her own body. Her light dress was one sheet of flame, the chair she left was enveloped in the same destroying element.
The young bride who found herself in such tragic circumstances on her wedding night was not the darling child of antebellum aristocracy, but instead was a young slave woman. Her mistress, Mrs. Hentz wrote, was so attached to Cora that she arranged for her wedding to take place in the main house and provided her with the finest of everything, including a magnificent wedding gown. The name chosen by the novelist for the mistress of the plantation, as you probably have guessed, was “Mrs. Bellamy.”
The story continues almost like a word for word recitation of the Bellamy Bridge legend:
…Mrs. Bellamy, who was in the room below, heard the sudden terrible cry of human suffering, and flew to relieve it. When she beheld the blazing figure leaping towards the open door, and recognized the voice of Cora, shrill and piercing as it now was, regardless of self, she sprang after her, and seizing her with frenzied grasp, tried to crush the flames with her slender fingers, and smother them against her own body. While she was thus heroically endeavouring to save the beautiful mulatto at the risk of her own life, Hannibal, who had dragged the carpet from the hall, wrapped it closely around the form of her he so madly loved.
Hannibal, another slave, was the man Cora had passed over when she agreed to marry her groom, whose name was King. The young woman lingered several days before she finally died from the horrible burns she had received. The fire had been caused when her wedding gown came into contact with a candle burning near her chair.
Cora, Mrs. Hentz went on to relate, was buried in a small cemetery on the “Bellamy plantation,” where her grave was surrounded by flowers and shrubs:
…The mourning bridegroom of an hour planted a weeping-willow by its side, and many a night, when the moon was shining on her grave, the tall, dark form of Hannibal would wander to the spot, certain that he met there the spirit of Cora, and that she looked kindly upon him. Indeed, all the negroes on the plantation saw her ghost, and it was always dressed like a bride, in white muslin, white roses, and white kid gloves.
Because Caroline Hentz moved to Marianna not long after the publication of Marcus Warland and died in the city just a few years later, the story of the unfortunate young woman who was severely burned on her wedding night on the “Bellamy plantation” came to be associated with the lonely grave of Elizabeth Jane Bellamy near Bellamy Bridge. The two stories, in short, became one, with the real tragedy of Elizabeth’s life being replaced by the horrible death of the “burning bride” in Mrs. Hentz’s novel.
The coincidence is rendered even more remarkable by the fact that “Cora” of Marcus Warland was a real person. In her “Address to the Reader” at the beginning of the book, Mrs. Hentz wrote as follows:
The description of Mr. Bellamy’s plantation is drawn from the real, not the ideal. The incident recorded of Mrs. Bellamy, of her endeavouring to rescue the mulatto girl from the flames at the risk of her own life, occurred during the last winter in our city. The lady who really performed the heroic and self-serving deed is a friend of our own, and we saw her when her scarred and bandaged hands bore witness to her humanity and sufferings.
The introductory explanation was datelined from Columbus, Georgia. Attempts to learn the real identity of “Mrs. Bellamy” and more detail about the actual death of “Cora” have been met with frustration. The newspapers of Columbus seem not to have taken note of the death of a young slave woman, even under such tragic circumstances.
Caroline Hentz died in Marianna in 1856 and is buried in the small cemetery at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. Her memory has largely faded from the modern generation, but her heartbreaking story of the death of a young slave names “Cora” lives on in the legend of the “Burning Bride of Bellamy Bridge.”
– End of Excerpt –
None of this, of course, means that there is not a ghost at Bellamy Bridge. The tale of Elizabeth’s specter haunting the vicinity was told long before the “burning bride” story became known. It does, however, had a unique literary quality to the legend.
The Bellamy Bridge tale, in fact, is a combination of a real story about real people, a legend of a haunting that grew after Elizabeth’s death, a 19th century novel and the real story of an unfortunate African-American woman who died on her wedding night near Columbus, Georgia. The attachment of this story to the bridge makes the structure not just an architectural and historical landmark, but also a literary one.
To learn more, please consider the book The Ghost of Bellamy Bridge: 10 Ghosts & Monsters from Jackson County, Florida.
The historic bridge is reached today by the Bellamy Bridge Heritage Trail, a one-half mile walking trail that leads to the structure from a parking lot at 4057 County Road 162, Marianna, Florida. (Note: You can no longer reach the bridge off Bellamy Bridge Road). The map at the bottom of this page will show you how to find it.
The trail is open daily and is free to visit. Please note it leads through a natural floodplain forest and that some sections may flood when the Chipola River is above the 8-foot level on the USGS Gauge at Marianna, Florida.
To learn more about the Ghost of Bellamy Bridge and see an actual search for the ghost, enjoy this free mini-documentary: