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The Hunter Museum of American Art sits atop a bluff that towers over Chattanooga, a piece of land rumored to be cursed and coveted by many over the centuries. This piece of ground looks over the Tennessee River and was sacred to the Cherokee before it became the centerpiece for battles during the Civil War between the Union and the Confederacy.
Later, the rich and famous built mansions along the bluff, flexing their money and ignoring the cursed and bloodstained ground upon which they built their houses. Now, the Hunter Museum of American Art sits atop the bluff as an icon of education, creativity, and the preservation of history. Among artistic relics of the 1700s to the present are other traces of history. Some say they’ve seen ghosts wandering the halls of the Hunter Museum, and stories of murder still linger in the air.
Long before Chattanooga was born, the iconic bluff that overlooks the Tennessee River was held as sacred by the Cherokee tribes living there. They believed it was the home of a mythical and holy hawk god named Tia-Numa.
White settlers moved in, and Chattanooga was established after all of the Cherokee tribes in the area were banished to Oklahoma via the Trail of Tears. A few years later, an iron foundry was built on the bluff, chasing away Tia-Numa, who cursed the land and followed the rest of the Cherokee tribes toward their government-appointed reservation lands.
Today, according to Cherokee legend, the Hunter Museum of American Art sits where Tia-Numa once built its nest. The museum opened in 1952 in a mansion formerly owned by an insurance broker named Ross Faxton, who lived there for nine years with his family in 1905. Almost a decade later, the estate was sold to Anne Taylor Thomas, widow of Coca-Cola Bottling Company founder Benjamin F. Thomas.
Later, their nephew, George Thomas Hunter, inherited the property. Now, the museum has collections representing all forms of art from the 1700s to the present day and hosts a rotation of other pieces, bringing seekers of culture, art, and history to the bluff.
Amid the artistic opulence of the Hunter Museum of American Art, staff members say they see brief flights of movement in strange corners and feel cold spots in unexpected places. Security guards say the shadows move in curious ways at night, and the wind sounds as if it carries moans from beyond the grave. At least one body has been found in the mansion that now hosts the Hunter Museum, and some say at least five ghosts haunt the mansion.
In 1915, a 60-year-old woman named Augusta Hoffman disappeared from the mansion where she lived with her sister. The family rented Number 15 Bluff View, the mansion next door to the Hunter Estate and owned by the Hunter family.
Augusta wasn’t a wealthy woman and wasn’t often seen outside her mansion. Occasionally, Augusta would do seamstress work for neighbors, but mostly, the woman stayed within the walls of Number 15 Bluff View. And many say she hasn’t roamed far after her death, either.
A few years later, in 1924, Mrs. Hunter decided to do some renovations in the basement at Number 15 Bluff View. She hired carpenters to redo the floors, and as they began demolition, their hammers hit something unexpected – a bespeckled human skull with false teeth grinning up at them.
News reports from the time said the body had been burned with acid and was positively identified as the remains of August Hoffman by the dentist who made the dentures found in the skull. The relatives living at Number 15 Bluff View were charged with August’s murder.
The ghost of Augusta Hoffman has appeared in photos repeatedly as an apparition in one of the windows of the Hunter Museum and as a shadow figure in dark corners and hallways of the Hunter Museum. Sometimes, the smell of acidic, rotten flesh floats through the room from an unknown source. Though she didn’t die in the mansion that now houses the art museum, Hoffman seems to like the company of the art and the people who tour Hunter Museum. She’s stuck to familiar ground after death, venturing only a mansion from where she was murdered.
Augusta Hoffman isn’t the only ghostly presence that haunts the Hunter Museum. Staff members tell stories of other energies stuck around the mansion on the bluff. Each has a different feel and level of activity, manifesting as orbs of light, cold spots, strange smells, and unexplained noises. Just because Augusta is the only one named doesn’t mean she’s alone – spirits of Civil War soldiers and members of the Cherokee tribes are probably roaming the mansion as well.
Hauntings at Hunter Museum
The bluff where Hunter Museum sits has always been at the center of some of Chattanooga’s most chilling hauntings and the epicenter of local Cherokee legends. While the buildings atop the coveted land are haunted by the spirits of those who refuse to move on from the bluff, the land is steeped in legend, lore, mystery, and murder. It’s not the only bloodstained place in Chattanooga, either. Visit our other blogs for more chilling stories of Chattanooga and other haunted cities in America.
Architecture & History | Hunter Museum of American Art