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The Bijou Theatre



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The Bijou Theatre, Knoxville’s Gem of the South, attracts locals and tourists to its historic doors daily. They come seeking entertainment, live performances, musicals, and the odd ghost story or two. 

 

It’s a complicated history, interwoven between tragedy and demise. In terms of spiritual activity, the third oldest building in Knoxville does not disappoint. Spirits tug on the shirts of passing workers and theatre-goers while footsteps echo off the magnificent ceiling. 

 

They harken back to when the hotel served as a hospital occupied by enemy troops and a home for transients. If these walls could speak, there would be no end to the stories they would tell. 

 

Unfortunately for us, they remain silent. But, luckily for you, we want to tell their stories. Our haunted history tour is rated the #1 ghost tour in Knoxville and gives you the opportunity to visit the very spots where the spirits of these tales dwell.

 

Let’s look into the Bijou and see what makes it so uniquely haunted. Maybe the spirits will call you to them, and you’ll find yourself at their front door. 

 

History of The Bijou Theatre

 

The grace of such stars as Dolly Parton, Dizzy Gillipsie, and Anna Pavlova was far from the mind of Thomas Humes when he opened the Lamar House. Plot 38, once belonging to Revolutionary War Hero General James White, was sold to Humes in 1801. He had a grand vision for Tenessee’s oldest commercially active property, and in 1815, it began. 

 

Unfortunately, as if acting as a bad omen, he died in 1816, one year before his grand hotel was finished. The property held The Knoxville Hotel along with three storefronts and a tavern.

 

When the hotel finally opened, it boasted 13 guest rooms, a bar, and a ballroom. The upper crust of Knoxville society called it home, including future President Andrew Jackson during one of the hotel’s first events. 

 

It changed hands and names for many years, undergoing major renovations, adding new amenities, and doubling its size. One occurred in 1852 and another in 1857. 

 

The Bijou and The Civil War

 

The good times at the Lamar House ended abruptly as the Civil War erupted nationwide. It reached Knoxville by the end of 1863, and the future Bijou Theatre found itself under Union control. It was turned into a makeshift Union hospital during a campaign that resulted in hundreds of Confederate casualties. 

 

Most famously, Union General William Sanders was gunned down by a Confederate sharpshooter during this time, dying in the bridal suite on November 19th, 1863.

 

After the war, the Lamar House continued to change hands, falling under the ownership of seven different people. President Rutherford B. Hayes made a speech from the balcony on Gay Street in 1877, marking the height of the hotel’s post-war period.



Entertainment at The Lamar House

 

In 1908, the Auditorium Company purchased the building, tore down the wings of the old structure, and constructed the first iteration of the theatre. Vaudeville made its way to Knoxville, and the theatre, aptly named Jake Wells Bijou Theatre after proprietor Jakes Wells, experienced a burst of creativity and success.

 

The Bijou was overshadowed by the more modern and elegant Tennessee Theatre in 1928 and became a used car lot. One of the first Chinese-American restaurants in the south, Pagoda, operated on the southern side of the building, but the lavish past of the Lamar House seemed lost to time. 

 

Paramount Pictures showed second-run movies and hosted various performances while owning the building. This period lasted from the 1930s till the 1950s, after which the Bijou was renamed “The Bijou Art Theatre.” Its sole purpose was the showing of “adult movies.”

 

Meanwhile, the neighboring Lamar Hotel served as a halfway home for transients and prostitutes. It was a reflection of Knoxville’s incredible fall from grace.

 

The Bijou Theatre in Modern Times

 

By 1975, the Bijou and the Lamar Hotel were scheduled for demolition. However, through the aid of the community that same year, it was designated as a national historical landmark and was saved. Local charities raised a million dollars, and in 1985, The Bijou got the restoration it deserved. 

 

Since 2005, it has been operating as a full-time theatre, presenting operas, musical theatres, live performances, and much more—a hub of entertainment in the Knoxville area. But many gather around the theatre’s door late at night to hear more than just musical whimsy. 

 

The Bijou Theatre is the most haunted theatre in Knoxville, after all

 

Spirits of The Bijou Theatre

 

It comes as no surprise that the death of hundreds of Civil War-era soldiers left a spiritual stain on the old building. The ghost of General Sanders is often seen walking around. Several witnesses have seen him out of the corner of their eyes and then vanishing in an instant. But he is not alone. 


Others roam the theatre, searching for salivation. They tug on the clothing of workers and visitors trying to enjoy the show, quite annoying! 

 

Paranormal investigators believe it is the spirit of a small child, perhaps one that died during the hotel years here. It is said that this tiny but terrifying apparition haunts the women’s bathroom on the second floor. Then, there is the unavenged spirit of a man named Thomas Atkins.

 

Thomas Atkins was stabbed here by Thomas Sneed, a relative of former owner William Sneed. They were bitter rivals, and one evening, he stumbled into the Bijou looking for a quick drink. Sneed made quick work of him around 3 am after a vicious argument. 

 

His spirit can be heard stumbling around the hallways late at night, searching for a glass of water and peace. 

 

Haunted Knoxville

 

We are just scratching the surface of the spiritual world at the Bijou Theatre. Knoxville is a ghostly hot spot like no other, as the former capital of Eastern Tennessee has a long history filled with glamor and gore. 


Discover it on one of our Knoxville Ghost Tours, the #1-rated ghost tour in Knoxville! 

 

Until then, keep reading our blog for more spooky tales of woe and want, and follow us on social media (Facebook, Instagram, TikTok).

 

Sources:

 

https://knoxbijou.org/history/

 

https://www.wate.com/haunted-tennessee/former-hotel-brothel-civil-war-hospital-the-bijou-theatre-a-haunted-venue/

 

https://www.wbir.com/article/news/local/51-608699714

 

https://www.thoughtco.com/knoxville-campaign-2360282

 

https://www.visitknoxville.com/civil-war/#:~:text=The%20Knoxville%20campaign%20was%20a,return%20to%20the%20Army%20of

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