Marc Anthony breaks in to Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary to uncover the myths and legends
Prison as a tourist attraction. Sounds fun. Most visitors to Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary have probably never spent a night in jail. Let’s go. Sounds fun. Selfie time. Fun.
Upon my arrival in Petros, I didn’t know what to expect. But the foreboding sense of dread that entered my body as soon as I left the gift shop and walked onto the grounds leading to the penitentiary was palpable. Walking into a prison was something I had spent most of my life avoiding. Fun. Let’s go.
The crumbling facade is not the same as it was in 1896 or even after the 1930s rebuild. The paint is hanging off the walls and the bars are rusted and deteriorating. But if you take time to think about what an actual life lived here was like versus a wandering tour on a Saturday afternoon, the dilapidation of the facility pales in your consciousness.
Prisoners housed here were the worst of the worst. Or maybe they weren’t. Oral history includes stories of child prisoners and inmates incarcerated for crimes as heinous as sassing. The ugly truth of Brushy Mountain is the slave labor forced upon prisoners so that the state of Tennessee could make money in the coal industry. Battles were fought over the coal in this part of Morgan County. Casualties abounded and a legacy was born.
Most East Tennesseans have a cursory knowledge of the prison. Martin Luther King’s assassin, James Earl Ray, was here. He escaped from here. Isn’t Brushy Mountain where Ol’ Sparky was? I hear it’s haunted. Isn’t it built in the shape of an upside down cross? Where are the spirits? Let’s take a flashlight tour. Maybe we’ll see a ghost. Fun.
How many times have you watched a prison movie and imagined what life behind bars would actually be like? This place may be your only chance to find out. The cells are locked, but peering through the bars affords you a glimpse of a life wasted. Walls adorned with tick marks counted days of incarceration. Grooves cut into cell bars betray failed escape attempts. Sketches of Jesus turned a wall into a shrine. Steel shelves you wouldn’t store a toolbox on held bunk beds for two prisoners in a space barely large enough for one. And the next time you walk into your bathroom at home and close the door behind you, imagine what squatting on a rusted aluminum toilet out in the open for guards and your cellmate to see might feel like.
Freedom. A life lived without it. Condemned to exist in squalid conditions. Dignity a long forgotten commodity. This place, this tour, provides you with a visceral and tactile experience of daily incarceration. Vertical bars that give way to the rectangular horizontal opening for food or handcuffing. The view, a drab and sagging wall, mere feet away from the cell you sit in. Even Hannibal Lecter escaped before he could be transferred to Brushy Mountain in The Silence of the Lambs. Tennessee’s Alcatraz. While Brushy Mountain may not be surrounded by the San Francisco Bay, its placement in a natural amphitheater of the nearly impossible-to-traverse Crab Orchard Mountains made escapes a temporary dalliance. And there were many attempts. Homes in and around Petros still have bars on their windows even though the prison has been closed for a decade.
The violence associated with Brushy Mountain is legendary and isn’t just something that happened in the “old days”. Anyone living in east Tennessee in the mid-2000s remembers the name Wayne “Cotton” Morgan, a longtime Brushy prison guard who was shot and killed by the wife of his prisoner George Hyatte. The Roane County courthouse was the scene of the murder and escape. Jennifer Hyatte, in confiscated prison writings, described her husband and herself as a “modern day Bonnie and Clyde”. Horrific violence at the prison goes back as far as those notorious gangsters. Murders, fights, muggings, and gangs dominate the history of the facility. You may never know what drives a prisoner to attack another, but these dank and hopeless confines gives some indication of the mental torture associated with this type of incarceration. The museum on the prison grounds displays dozens of implements of mayhem and death. Brass knuckles and shanks of all sizes and efficacy adorn the display cabinets. As a matter of fact, you may be standing close to a former prisoner of Brushy Mountain. Several remain on the property as tour guides, leading curiously respectful parties around the prison, beguiled by tales of death and destruction.
“You heard of Cumberland County? Crossville, Tennessee? I’m the one who blew up their country club back in ‘83 with dynamite,” regales former inmate George Wyatt, not to be confused with George Hyatte, Cotton Morgan’s murderer. Some do, and George sets them straight. Dynamite, robbery, family, and redemption highlight his story told to anyone who will listen.
After describing the way to make a tattoo gun in prison, George whips off his shirt to show his jailhouse back piece of a lion that “cost me two cartons of cigarettes”. The stories are time worn, yet well told, and add to the esoteric experience this unique setting provides.
No story about Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary would be complete without referencing the prison’s most notorious resident, James Earl Ray. The 1970s was dominated with stories of his escape attempts. Most of us may have forgotten, or didn’t know, that while incarcerated, he married a WBIR Channel 10 court sketch artist. Martin Luther King’s assassin was more than just a murderer. He was a conspiracy theorist who was able to convince inmates and guards that he was only one part of a wider plot to kill the civil rights leader. He was a shylock, loaning money and charging a vig to other cell block residents. He was a liar and thief whose ineptitude as a criminal led people to believe that he would never be able to escape from prison. He was 0 for 4. The only way James Earl Ray could escape Brushy Mountain was on a stretcher with 77 stitches to his face and body after being attacked by other inmates. James Earl Ray lived out his days in prison, dying at age 70 in Nashville.
So, how does an ancient prison become a distillery, concert venue, and a paranormal ghost tour destination? Maybe you need one to enjoy the others. Owner Pete Waddington sums that up by saying, “We want to make a good product out of the distillery, we want to give everyone a good meal, we want to sell them something in the giftshop, and we want to do a bad-ass prison tour.” The gift shop is the home of The Brushy Mountain Distillery, purveyors of moonshine and vodka. According to Pete and the website, this area was picked as a distillery because of the freshwater spring in the hills above the prison. End Of The Line Moonshine and Frozen Head Vodka line shelves that climb to the ceiling, and tastings are available daily. Grab a bite “behind bars” at The Warden’s Table restaurant and nab a T-shirt, drinking glass, hat, or bottle opener on the way out. It may have been the End Of The Line for prisoners at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, but you’re free to come and go as you please.
And, if you please, come back for paranormal tours. Yeah, I’m good. But, if this is your thing, then this is your place. Pete Waddington says about the ghost tours, “I wasn’t a believer, but I am now. My wife got her hair pulled in the bathroom at the end of the hall, we had a guide quit on us because she got so freaked out, and she was a guide for paranormals… she has not been back, if that tells you something.” Thanks, Pete, tells me everything I need to know.
But, there is so much more to know about the paranormal activity here, says local Jamie Brock, who leads the ghost tours and is available daily to end your prison visit with mesmerizing stories of what you might experience. “There is no location here that’s not active. You may get touched, we’ve had people scratched, you will hear voices, whistles, moaning, groaning. And from time to time, we get James Earl Ray here, or someone that claims to be him anyway.”
Spend an hour, spend half a day. Have fun. Take a selfie.
But walk out of Brushy Mountain remembering that many before you never did.
Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary and Distillery is located in Petros, Tennessee, in Morgan County, just southeast of Frozen Head State Park.
Tour and museum, gift shop, and Warden’s Table restaurant are open 7 days a week from 10:30 am to 7 pm.
Paranormal tours can be researched by visiting tourbrushy.com/paranormal-tours