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The Read House: A Tragic History and Legend

Updated: Dec 23, 2020

Not long ago I found myself a guest at the oldest continuously operating hotel in the quaint town of Chattanooga, Tennessee, nestled quietly in the hills of Appalachia. From the outside, the Georgian-style building looked just like any other, but upon entering the front lobby, one is met with the stunning marble terrazzo floors, carved walnut paneling covering the walls, Art Deco and Modern Art lit by Waterford chandeliers. Steep archways and an original elevator front and brass covered postal box mounted on the wall provide an instant feeling of walking back in time. One can almost imagine the policemen that would have guarded the elevator doors, preventing passengers from leaving or entering the third floor, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Chattanooga, a boomtown created by the merging of the Western and Atlantic Rail Roads in 1850, making the mountain town accessible to move goods through the Appalachia, East to West, an important union during the Civil War. As coal moved through the mountains, passengers traveled freely, and the town had the need of a stately hotel. The original Crutchfield House was built in 1847 where the Read House stands today by Thomas Crutchfield, directly across the street from the railroad. By the 1860s, Chattanooga was captured by the Union Army, who used the Old Crutchfield House as a union and confederate hospital that treated over five hundred soldiers on the site. Hundreds of soldiers have also died on this site by the ravages of war.

The Old Crutchfield House met its fate in 1867. First, the floodwaters of the Tennessee River rose over 57 feet; descriptions of paddle boats running past the front door to ferry stranded flood victims to higher grounds are recorded in the local paper of the time. That same year, the hotel burned to the ground. As an era ended for the Crutchfield House, Samuel Read, an architect starts a new one and builds the current Read House on the same site.

In 1875, the site of the Read House is commandeered again and used for quarantine and a hospital, only this time to treat a Cholera outbreak, followed by a Yellow Fever epidemic just two years later. Both diseases would take nearly half of the population of the town and again, the Read House becomes the site of many deaths. Nearly 8,000 survivors would flee the city.

By the 1880s, Samuel Read expanded his hotel by adding a fourth floor and extending out to the length of the entire block, enlarging the rooms to include private Turkish baths and dedicating the ground floor to merchants, including Coca-Cola’s first Soda Shop. The fate of the Read House toward the roaring 20s seems to glow, that is until Prohibition starts in 1920.

Because of the railroad, Chattanooga became a popular stop, not only for tourists but for patrons like Al Capone, who was moving whiskey to Chicago and Miami. Prostitutes worked the streets by night, and hidden distilleries produced whiskey by day. Even the Police Commissioner Betterton was convicted of packing whiskey into coffins and shipping them through the railroad. Nearly 30 known whiskey distilleries and one brewery were in operation, giving Chattanooga the nickname Dynamo Dixie. “Dynamo” no doubt from the surrounding coal mines.

In 1926, as the Read House goes through a complete renovation to compete with Chicago’s Palmer House, Al Capone makes friends with the RyeMabee family and hides at their Castlewood home, which is now the High Point Restaurant on the top of Mount Eagle. Capone operates his bootlegging business from Castlewood while in town, hidden safely from his mountain top. Rumors suggest that RyeMabee was a mobster himself.

The curse strikes the hotel again In 1927 and starts the most famous legend of the Read House, the discovery of gruesome death in room 311. A young married woman from San Francisco, named Annalisa Netherly is found dead in a bath full of blood. What isn’t well documented, is how she died. If by suicide, it would have gone unreported. If she was beheaded as some legends suggest, this too would have been kept quiet to prevent scandal and protect the reputation of the Read House.

What is certain is she was found dead in room 311. Even then, the room was not rented out to the general public. The following year, Al Capone was captured and kept in the notorious room 311 during his transport for trial because the Read House could not rent out the room at the time. An officer stood guard at the elevator day and night to ensure no one left or entered the third floor of the hotel. Iron bars were placed over the windows to prevent the mobster from escape. These bars have since been cut, but the base of them can still be seen in the room today.

With so much gruesome and unfortunate history, it is no wonder the Read House continues to be such a haunted location. Indeed, the site seems cursed. I had the chance to stay in room 311 during the Gatlinburg fires in 2016. Upon first entering the room, you are met with a mixture of old and new. An old writing desk, bath, and pedestal sink remain in the room, though I cannot be certain that they are the original fixtures from the 20s. People who have stayed in the room claim to smell cigar smoke and be taunted by the spirit of Annalisa.

While I was disappointed to not have been able to connect with the spirit of Al Capone, I did feel the presence of a despondent woman. Was she Annalisa Netherly? I am unsure as I did not know the story until someone mentioned it to me just recently. I do know it was a depressed woman who did not seem to know she was even there, or that I was there. Her spirit paced back and forth as if lost in eternal despair. I hope to return one day and try prayer for the dead to help.

There are other spirits that reside at the Read House too. During my stay, I picked up on a presence in the ballroom, and a very young one in the hallway on the second floor. But I will leave it to you ghost hunters to decipher who they are. I suggest spending some time in the Silver Ballroom beneath the chandeliers and listen for the silenced chatter of the spirits who still convene there.

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