This unique Coffee County, Tennessee legend features the sad tale of a young girl accused of witchcraft, and becomes a local story that is still told, and feared, over 150 years later. Allow me introduce you to the strange legend of Sadie Baker.
Welcome to the inaugural episode of the Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast. My name is Lyle Russell, and I love a good ghost story. On today’s show, I’ll share with you the Legend of Sadie Baker.
In the 6th Civil District near modern day Manchester, Tennessee lived the Sheltons, a large and prominent well-to-do family who was blessed with multiple healthy children. Their daughters were well-known in the area for their beauty and the sons were handsome and strong. All had many prospects for advantageous marriages until one day, when a beautiful stranger came to town. This legend focuses on the youngest Shelton daughter, a kind-hearted soul named Olivia.
All the Shelton daughters were sought after by many handsome and prosperous suitors, but none were so prized as Olivia. She was the most beautiful maiden in town, with flawless olive skin, curly raven-colored locks, and crystal blue eyes. Young men far and wide vied for her affection and she was the toast of the local gentry. Her parents knew and used that to their social advantage, especially her mother.
One afternoon after a day in town, Olivia encountered a sad-looking beggar girl on the dusty streets of the Manchester shopping district. Olivia had never seen the girl in town before and asked other passers-by about her, yet no one could say who she was or where she came from. The poor thing was a pitiful sight, draped in threadbare rags under a dirty cloak and smelled repugnant, causing the townsfolk to ignore her, or at least avoid walking near her, but not the kind and curious Olivia. She approached, kneeled in front of the sad-looking stranger and asked her name. The girl would not reply or even look up at her. She only extended a dirt caked hand, gesturing for a coin or anything else of value Olivia might be willing to part with. Olivia asked again for her name or if she needed help, but the beggar remained silent, only staring down and holding her hand out. Olivia asked a final time, but as much as she tried, she received no response. Through her boundless sympathy and pity for the downtrodden, and now a strange curiosity about her identity, Olivia pulled her up by the hand. “That settles it then, “she said. “You’re coming home with me, and my family and I are going to help you.” And off they went toward the Shelton house at the edge of town.
When Olivia arrived home with the young girl in tow, her sisters were giddy with the thought of a makeover project, but her mother was not so enthusiastic about Olivia’s new friend. Nevertheless, after all the girls begged to let her stay, Mrs. Shelton finally relented. Olivia and her sisters went to work straight away on cleaning her up. As the grime was slowly wiped away, they were all taken aback by the incredible beauty underneath it all. The girl had flowing golden-white locks, flawless pale skin and bright green eyes. Her slight frame fit into Olivia’s best dresses too easily. It is said that the sisters became insanely jealous of this new diamond in the rough, but none so much as Olivia’s mother. Mrs. Shelton saw this silent street rat’s beauty as a threat to her own daughter’s place as the most beautiful girl in Manchester, and that simply would not do.
Her fears were proven true later that day, as Mr. Shelton and his sons arrived home from a hard day’s work. At dinner, they barely spoke or ate as the gob smacked Shelton boys were enthralled by the stunning beauty of this young girl. She had probably not eaten in some time, and voraciously yet gracefully ate her fill without ever speaking a word.
In the following days, Olivia’s brothers are said to have fought with each other for the beautiful stranger’s attention, though she paid them nor anyone else any mind. The quiet girl just kept to herself and never spoke. Her lack of enthusiasm toward the boys didn’t stop them from bragging around town about the stunning new resident at the Shelton’s house. As word spread through the small town of her presence, the usual gentlemen callers that normally came to see Olivia and her sisters lost interest in them. Instead, they all clamored for a glimpse of the beautiful stranger behind their door.
Olivia was not jealous of the girl like her sisters were. In fact, she made every effort to be the girl’s friend, even though she never got any response for her efforts. However, all the unnatural devotion from the Shelton boys and the other male townsfolk was not lost on the keen eyes of Olivia’s mother. This mysterious girl became the talk of the town and left Mrs. Shelton facing a southern societal conundrum. She could not kick the girl out on the street for fear of appearing to be a less-than-gracious hostess, and surely someone else in town would scoop up the young maiden for their own benefit, creating even more of a suitor rivalry for the Shelton girls. Her only option was to forcefully keep the girl as a captive house guest. Mrs. Shelton would lock her away from the town for as long as it took until marriage proposals for Olivia and her sisters could be negotiated. She forbade all the Shelton men from speaking to anyone about her presence anymore. She then sat the girl in their parlor and explained that she was not safe outside, and that great harm would befall her if she left the house.
The girl did not protest her imprisonment. She just stared at the floor and never uttered a word.
Olivia’s world came crashing down one Spring afternoon when her most eligible gentleman caller, a handsome young man from another prominent family and Olivia’s sweetheart, called on their blonde house guest for a stroll about town instead of her. The visit sent Mrs. Shelton into a rage, and a crying and heartbroken Olivia pleaded with her mother to throw the girl back out into the street or at least send her away to some other town. She could not be consoled about the loss of her sweetheart, locking herself in her room and crying through the night. That’s when her mother decided to act.
She called on the local minister and insisted the only explanation for all this strange behavior was that this enigmatic girl must be a witch. How could a common beggar girl who would not speak a word and hardly left the house have captured the attention of every man in town? The minister needed little convincing, since he, too, had witnessed his congregation’s strange infatuation with her grow since her arrival. He sent word to convene the town council for a trial. Mrs. Shelton demanded the council pass judgement without the girl’s presence, as the council were all men and they, too, could be bewitched by her devilry. The minister agreed, and the council convened for judgement without allowing the girl any representation or a chance to defend herself. The trial commenced, and the fiery speech of the minister and scandalous accusations by Mrs. Shelton whipped the town into a moral frenzy. That was all they needed. Within moments, a verdict was passed.
They declared her a witch without any further evidence and immediately debated how to proceed with ridding the town from her spell. After debating the options of traditional punishments for witchcraft, such as hanging, drowning, or burning at the stake, a vote was taken that she would be buried alive and covered with large rocks so she could not escape the grave. A mob was dispatched to the Shelton house to retrieve her, and the rest were sent to the cemetery to find rocks and hastily dig a deep grave.
The silent girl was drug from her bed in the middle of the night by her golden hair. She was stripped, bound to a pole, and roughly dragged through the dirt streets where Olivia originally found her. The townsfolk spit on her and cursed her as she was shoved mercilessly toward the fresh hole in the Earth where they would bury her, yet through the horrible shame and torment, she did not resist and still said nothing.
Olivia suddenly had a change of heart, feeling responsible for this cruelty after seeing the rage of her neighbors carried out on this poor girl whose only crime was being prettier than her. She ran into the fray to try and stop the procession, placing herself between kicks and punches and pleading with them to stop, but she was unsuccessful. When the mob arrived at the cemetery, they stood the girl up at the edge of the hole where she looked around at the angry torch-lit faces of the men who were once smitten with her and the women who cursed and despised her. She suddenly locked eyes with a distraught Olivia; her bleeding and swollen face flew into a rage as she shouted the only words anyone ever heard her speak.
“I am Sadie Baker!”
They pushed her in and took turns throwing down the rocks, burying the helpless young girl under a small mountain of stone.
Several months passed, and life returned to the normal that the Sheltons were accustomed to. All of the sons and daughters were now married off to start families of their own.Last to marry was young Olivia, who ended up marrying the sweetheart she so adored. At first, there was bliss in their house. Olivia’s husband worked hard and provided a wonderful living, and they talked regularly of grand plans and having children. All seemed right for a while until one night, while preparing for bed, Olivia’s husband found her sitting and absently staring at her reflection in the dressing mirror. Her raven locks were clutched tightly in her clenched fists. When he asked her if she was alright, she screamed and accused him of wanting a family with Sadie instead of her. She then cried herself to sleep, and every night thereafter.
The strange paranoia continued for several days as she cursed her long dark hair and olive skin, hating how she looked. She told him she wished she looked like Sadie so he would love her again. He assured her he loved her now, but her fury would not let her hear him. Olivia would not eat or sleep. She sat and stared blankly into the mirror and pulled at her hair. He begged the town doctor for help, but no balm or tincture would calm Olivia’s mind. He then went to the minister, who declared that Sadie’s final words at the grave had bewitched Olivia, and that it must be Sadie’s spirit trying to take over her body. He desperately wanted to ease his wife’s pain, and out of desperation, he allowed the minister to treat her. A violent exorcism was performed, among other religious rituals to expel the tormented spirit, but nothing worked. Olivia’s condition worsened by the day.
One evening, Olivia’s husband arrived home to find her in front of the mirror again with a wide-eyed and wild stare. Her head was a mess of chopped and jagged tufts, and small bleeding cuts from the garden shears she used to cut off all her hair. Her long, raven-colored locks laid in clumps on the floor. All Olivia would say is that the ugly dark hair did not belong with her new beautiful blonde hair. She repeatedly asked him if he liked it. When he tried to calm her, she attacked him again, throwing him to the floor and pouncing on top of him with a feral snarl. She screamed into his face, “I AM SADIE BAKER!” then sprinted out of the house and into the darkened woods, never to be seen again.
Around the cemetery where Sadie was buried, reports persisted for many years after of a woman’s maniacal laughter and blood-curdling screams coming from the surrounding woods. They believed it to either be Olivia suffering the guilt of causing Sadie to be buried alive, or it was the spirit of Sadie Baker herself, returned to find her body under the stones. It was said until Sadie found her body, she would curse those who came to her grave and not leave a coin, just as Olivia should have done when they first met in the dusty streets.
I do not usually make a habit of debunking myths, however, in my research, I cannot corroborate the story in any capacity and must relegate it to local word-of-mouth folklore. The last official witch trial in the United States was held in 1918 just over 100 years ago, and, ironically, happened in Salem, Massachusetts. There is a possibility that an incident like this could have occurred in Tennessee, as many people were falsely persecuted as witches in many places throughout world history.
As for this legend, there is little known about the life of the real Sadie Baker, but this grave and the story that is attached to it that has stirred so many minds to think the grave belongs to a beautiful witch that was buried alive, when it definitely does not. The evidence I have found about the real Sarah ‘Wileman’ Baker in that grave is that she was born in Georgia around 1804 and was the widow of a Samuel Baker who was killed in 1838 during the Seminole War in Florida. By the 1860 Census, Sarah, at the age of 57, lived in the 6th Civil District of Coffee County near Manchester, along with eight various other Bakers as young as 1 years old, likely a grandchild. On that same census, there are several records of the Shelton family and their children living in the same district, but I could not find any named Olivia. Though an exact date isn’t certain, it seems she died in or around 1865 right after the end of the American Civil War. Based on property records, she was the only Sarah Baker in Coffee County at that time. Since Sadie is a derivative nickname of Sarah, this is most likely the Sarah Baker that passed in 1865 at 61-ish years old, and not a young girl thought to be a witch and buried alive.
The Sadie Baker story is well known in the paranormal world, and no new ground was broken by my investigation. However, even though it appears this legend is easily debunked, an air of mystery still surrounds the grave site. Many modern-day visitors have reported unsettling feelings of dread and fear even after just a brief time at the cemetery, and of being watched, particularly around Sadie’s grave.
Believers who make the pilgrimage to Sadie’s final resting place still leave a coin atop her stone, homage to her first encounter with Olivia begging for spare change and a hope the coin will placate Sadie’s restless spirit. I decided to see for myself what the fuss was about and visited her grave at the Concord Cemetery in Coffee County, Tennessee on April 7th, 2022.
It was a beautiful Thursday afternoon, just over 50 degrees; sunny and breezy. I wandered around the gravestones alone for about 30 minutes to get a feel of the place, trying to recreate the experiences others have reported. I’m happy to report, I did not feel any of those things. I’ve spent a lot of time in cemeteries hunting for my ancestor’s graves and have always found peace while walking among the dead. Concord Cemetery was no different. Though only 200 yards from a busy highway, it was remarkably quiet and peaceful. The only noticeable sound was the sway of the tall cedars on the property from the gentle northerly breeze.
After a time, I visited with Sadie at her stone. I never once felt uneasy or the sudden urge to glance over my shoulder. She is interred right at the front of the cemetery near the small redbrick church building that stands sentinel over the hillside plots. Her carved marble block stands low, just about ankle high; her infamous nickname emblazoned in bold black letters. Not Sarah, but Sadie. There are no dates of birth or death, no words of inspiration. Just a cold piece of marble marking the final resting place of a local legend, and her name is all that remains.
Other visitors had left pennies on top of her stone, as well as a small horseshoe, unlit candles, small crystal stones, some artificial flowers and a small green bottle marked “unfiltered poison”. While I’m not sure of the significance of the other items, I understand the coins and their attachment to the legend. Before I departed, I left a coin of my own on top of her stone. Though I’m not a believer in the legend, I still felt it appropriate to pay my own respects to the woman’s name that adorns the title of my first podcast, and just in case the story is true, I’d rather be safe than sorry!
Thank you for listening to the Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast inaugural episode. I am your host, Lyle Russell, and remember, the dead may seem scary, but it’s the living you should be wary of. Until next time.