By: Debra Ellis October 25, 2006 Times Edition
It’s that time of year. You know the time. The weather is cooler, the nights a little crisper. Leaves are changing in preparation of falling to the ground and being raked and piled ready to become the bon fire we all embrace. The air will soon be filled with the smells of the burning branches left behind by summer’s storms. Children will soon be sitting around these fires, eyes fixed on the story teller’s every word. The stories being passed down from generation to generation, retold with their own nuances and ever so slight variations.
You remember – as children we would stand in a line and whisper a phrase to the person to our right; they would turn and whisper what they thought they just heard to the person on their right; and so-on down the line until the phrase reaches the last person. The first person to relay the phrase will barely recognize what the final person is now relaying. The phrase has changed so dramatically, it is hardly recognizable.
One such local “tale” has fallen victim to this very phenomenon. The Ghost of Bellamy Bridge. The most common version and perhaps the most colorful is that of Elizabeth Croom, the young bride of Dr. Samuel Bellamy who allegedly died on her wedding night after her gown had caught fire in a freak accident. In the late 1980’s a group of individual’s, then in their late 80’s and 90’s relayed how their parents told them this version of the now historic “folklore” of The Bellamy Bridge Ghost.
Given the age of these individuals, this would date the origin of the legend to at least the late 19th century and first began to appear in print at about the same time. A few miles north of Marianna around Hwy 162 and the Old US Road, the Chipola River flows beneath the rusting framework of the old iron bridge. The framework is all that remains of this historic landmark; the usable portion of the bridge, once crossed by decades of Jackson County individual’s has since fallen pray to age and weather deterioration. The structure can be reached by a short walk in the woods or by following the Chipola River in a canoe south from Hwy 162. There is no public access by traveling along Bellamy Bridge Road.
The facts proven by Elizabeth’s headstone and the Croom family records are that Elizabeth was married to the Dr. Samuel Bellamy and that she died on May 11, 1837. From this point on, however, the facts vary. Although there are numerous variations, the most common revolves around the courtship and wedding of Elizabeth and Samuel.
Major General William Croom of Lenoir County, North Carolina, was one of that state’s largest property-owners and the father of Ann and Elizabeth. His death in 1829 left the girls extensive real estate holdings as well as slaves and other wealth and already held a strong interest in the new territory of Florida. Both Edward and Samuel Bellamy were closely associated with the men of the Croom family and soon developed romantic connections with both Ann and Elizabeth. Dr. Edward Bellamy became romantically interested in young Ann and after a standard courtship of the time; Edward and Ann were married in 1829, the same year as her father’s death. According to newspaper records in North Carolina, the couple was married at the family home in Lenoir County, when young Elizabeth was then only 10 years old.
The marriage of Ann and Edward strengthened the family ties between the Croom’s and the Bellamy’s, but the exact point at which Elizabeth became romantically involved with Samuel C. Bellamy is not known. Samuel was said to have built his bride-to-be a large columned mansion in Marianna. The wedding date was set for May 11, 1837. Samuel and Elizabeth, according to the story-tellers at least, were wed in the rose garden behind the magnificent home, but their happiness was to be shortlived. There are two stories of what happened next. The first holds that while dancing a waltz during the reception, legend holds that they moved too close to a burning candle. The other claims that exhausted from the rigors of the day, Elizabeth sank into a comfortable chair to rest. Her dress somehow came into contact with a lit candle. As to what happened next, both stories are the same. The young bride’s elegant gown burst into flames and before the groom or any of their guests could react, she ran from the house in panic and was engulfed by fire. She lingered for days but ultimately
succumbed to her injuries and was buried beneath a grove of trees on the plantation of Samuel’s older brother, Edward.
As the Ghost of Bellamy Bridge folk lore goes, the grave could not contain the love and devotion that had grown between Samuel and Elizabeth. Samuel refused to ever live in the beautiful mansion he had constructed for Elizabeth, and for many years the finest home in the city remained dark and vacant. Elizabeth was unwilling to leave her true love behind. An apparition began to appear on dark and foggy nights, wandering the swamps around the small cemetery where she was buried. It was said to be that of Elizabeth, the young bride, who ventured from the grave each night in search of her husband. Some have described her as a pale image in a long, white gown, moving slowly along the riverbank. Others say that she is engulfed in flames, screaming as she makes a mad dash for the nearby bridge and river.
The third story holds that the ghost can be seen plunging from mid-air straight down into the waters of the river. This is such a fascinating tale, it has been written in newspapers and has appeared on national television as one of the most haunted places in the country. It is a vivid reminder of the time when story-telling was a leading form of entertainment among residents in Northwest Florida. What makes this and other folk lore so easily accepted is the fact that the details reflect real people and real places in local history. Both Samuel and Elizabeth Bellamy were prominent members of early Florida society and as such, their story is easily traced.
The true history of the marriage departs significantly from the legend. Croom Family correspondence indicates that Samuel and Elizabeth were married in North Carolina on July 15, 1834, confirmed by North Carolina newspapers of the period. She was 15 years old when she took Samuel Bellamy’s hand in marriage.
Although legend holds that Samuel constructed the large mansion in Marianna for his new bride, the records of the Union Bank of Florida, of which Samuel became an appraiser, indicate that he was awarded 148 bank shares worth $14,800 on February 10, 1838, for use in building a new home. Based on the currency of the day, $14,800 would have allowed him to build a substantial residence and the magnificent home was in fact a showplace for many years. Located in the center of a full city block bounded by Green, Clinton, Market and Jefferson Streets, the Bellamy mansion was the largest home in the city of Marianna. It would have been a grand wedding gift, but Elizabeth never saw the home since the loan for its construction was approved nine months after her death.
It is not clear just where the couple called home, but Samuel owned hundreds of acres of cultivated land along the Chipola River. Samuel and Elizabeth had a baby boy in late 1835, giving him the name Alexander after several of Samuel’s ancestors. The bottomlands of the Chipola River were ideal for the production of cotton, which made Bellamy a very rich man, but they were also breeding grounds for vast swarms of mosquitoes. Deadly fevers, including malaria, ravaged the growing population throughout the early history of Jackson County and the Bellamy family became victims to their deadly effects.
According to a December 6, 1836, letter from Hardy Bryan Croom, Elizabeth’s half-brother, to his wife, the fevers had stricken the entire family. Samuel, Elizabeth and baby Alexander were all suffering from what appeared to be malaria. Samuel Bellamy recovered from the fever, but his wife and child did not. According to an obituary in a Tallahassee newspaper of the time, eighteen-year-old Elizabeth Jane Croom Bellamy died on May 11, 1837. She was not the victim of a tragic wedding night fire, but died of a mosquitoborne fever. According to this same obituary, her eighteenmonth-old son died seven days later on May 18, 1837.
The legend is correct in it’s reporting that Samuel never did recover from the loss of his beloved Elizabeth. On December 28, 1853, sixteen years after the death of his wife and child, Samuel C. Bellamy took his own life. He was 43 years old and it has been reported that he killed himself by slashing his own throat with a razor at the ferry landing in Chattahoochee.
The story of the lives of Samuel and Elizabeth Bellamy is tragic almost beyond belief, and it is not difficult to see how a ghost story could have grown from the terrible circumstances. But how such a story could have evolved into the form it takes today is difficult to comprehend. Elizabeth did not die on her wedding night and the cause of her death was fever, not fire. Yet the story is so intensely believed in Jackson County that it has become an accepted part of local history.
As for the ghost itself, people still claim that a restless apparition roams the swamps around Bellamy Bridge. Is the apparition young Elizabeth? Is she looking for her beloved Samuel? You decide.