Legend of ‘Tall Betsy’ marks 42 years in Cleveland, Tennessee, Halloween folklore
2022 to be 26th ‘ghostly’ appearance on Centenary Avenueby Ben Benton
October 22, 2022
At 7 feet, 6 1/2 inches tall, Tall Betsy -- the local-folklore-based creation of Cleveland, Tennessee's millionaire payday lending czar Allan Jones -- is a larger-than-life presence that will appear Halloween night on Centenary Avenue for the 26th time in 42 years.
The witch has been a tradition for generations of Clevelanders, and her appearance is always a surprise, according to the executive director of MainStreet Cleveland, which puts on Cleveland's Halloween Block Party this year, marking its 35th year.
"We never really know until closer to the last minute," Sharon Marr said Thursday by phone. "The past years she's been coming out on Centenary Avenue, just down the street from downtown in a downtown historic neighborhood."
The details of Tall Betsy's appearances each Halloween are in the hands of her creator, Marr said. Tall Betsy was already becoming known for her haunting appearances when the block party started in 1988.
"The legend of Tall Betsy adds to the mystery of Halloween in Cleveland, and I think it's a key part in bringing people to the downtown events," Marr said. "The events on Centenary and the block party are just a few blocks from each other, so they're very close, so we kind of blend into one event that night."
Before becoming the official goblin of Bradley County in a joint resolution passed by the Tennessee legislature on May 24, 1989, Tall Betsy had been haunting the Centenary Avenue area of the Bradley County seat since 1980.
(READ MORE: A Chattanooga dentist ranks Halloween candies from worst to best)
It's where Jones, 69, grew up, and it's where the legend of Tall Betsy loomed first.
"I did this from 1980 to 1998," Jones said Thursday in a phone interview. "When we moved off Centenary to Creekridge, where I live today out in the country, I was just worn out.
"This was a huge undertaking. I basically would have 20,000 people at my house, and I had a security guard stand next to me, and I had a poem," he said. "No candy."
But the modern, fictional Tall Betsy has roots in Jones family history from a century ago. And she was real, according to Jones.
"My grandmother told me the story of Tall Betsy," Jones said of his earliest memories. "She was a real lady that walked the streets of Cleveland back in the '20s. I assume it's the '20s because my great-grandfather, Dr. William Herman Schultz, was a physician, and he was walking home, and he met her about 10 o'clock at night by the (Confederate) monument in Cleveland.
"He was a tall man, and she stepped off the curb to let him pass, and she towered over him," he said.
Usually, the appearances happened about the same time of night.
"A lot of people thought it was a policeman dressed up to scare people, but the reality was she was probably a real odd, tall woman that was so odd-looking people would make fun of her, and she didn't' want to get out to walk until late at night when nobody was out," Jones said.
By the time Jones' mother, born 1925, was 10 years old, Tall Betsy took on an even more frightening persona.
"In 1935, mother was being told the story of Tall Betsy to try to get her to come in early on Halloween. 'You'd better come in, or Tall Betsy will be out,'" he said.
It was a useful tale other mothers in the neighborhood adopted, according to Jones.
A "LEGEND" IS BORN
In the appearances that started in 1980, according to "legend," Tall Betsy was said to rise from a mausoleum in Cleveland's historic Fort Hill Cemetery.
The "legend" was the tale Jones said he fabricated in the moment to impress a local reporter, Barbara Johnson, who wanted to learn about the figure he'd actually created from childhood memory, bed sheets, Rit's black dye, stick stilts and a mask in his backyard.
Jones was a Cleveland High School student in 1970 when he wanted to create the Tall Betsy character for Halloween, so he could make an appearance in his front yard since he was too old to trick or treat anymore.
"I went out in our backwoods, and I cut down two sapling trees about 3-inches thick, and I made me some stilts," he said. "I took -- without my mother knowing -- I got some of our sheets, and I went down to the grocery story and charged some Rit's black dye to my dad, and I got the horses' water bucket, and I filled it up and built a fire under it, filled it with water and took mother's sheets and died them black," Jones said.
Before long, Jones had his black sheets completed and left his newly-built stilts outside to dry, he said.
"Halloween afternoon, I go out in the backyard and lying out there in the sun are these stilts. Well, what happened was they bowed when they started drying," he said. "So I'm trying to walk on them, and I get angry with myself because I looked like a bow-legged cowboy instead of Tall Betsy."
(READ MORE: Eek Streets: Spooky Chattanooga sites embody the spirit of Halloween [photos, map])
He called it off for that year, but tried again the next year, and got the visit from the reporter.
"I started telling the lady (Johnson) the story about Tall Betsy, and she said, 'Well, she apparently is nice to kids?' I said, 'Yeah, but that's just up until 10 o'clock at night. If you're up after 10, you're a has-been because she'll come after you then,'" Jones told Johnson.
He said Johnson asked what happened to those who got caught?
"She'll dump your bones in that old well at Arnold School," Jones told her, referring to a well on his grandfather's property that would become the site of Arnold School.
"The well was really there, but I'm making it up as I go, and she asks, 'Where does she live?'" Jones said of his impromptu decision on Tall Betsy's home at the highest point in Fort Hill Cemetery -- a mausoleum.
"Next thing you know, it's in the paper," he said.
TALL BETSY NOW
Jones' son, Bailey Jones, now 31, took up Tall Betsy duties on Halloween in 2014.
"I brought Tall Betsy back after she was retired in '98. She got upgraded," Bailey Jones said Thursday in a phone interview. "She went from a little costume mask to a full Hollywood silicone mask that looks real that just stretches over the face and hands.
"Tall Betsy's gotten a little bit creepier since I took over," Bailey Jones said.
He said Halloween on Centenary Avenue was one of the biggest holidays in the family.
"It was even bigger than Christmas," he said. "I was born in '91, so my whole life he's been doing it, and Centenary has always been a big Halloween attraction."
Now, the latest form of Tall Betsy troops up and down Centenary Avenue to join block partygoers in their Halloween revelry and take pictures, he said.
"It's amazing all the people that tell me they grew up seeing Tall Betsy, and they want their children to see Tall Betsy as well," he said. "I inherited a well-respected character."
Bailey Jones said he has no children yet to take up the reins later. But he just got married, his father shouts in the background.
"Not anytime soon," the younger Jones said of children. "But I'll keep it going every year until then."
Whatever her origins, Tall Betsy has lots of fans, among them Chattanooga native Eli Smith, who wrote a song in her honor without ever having met her.
"It was a few years ago my friend who lives in Cleveland told me about Tall Betsy and just how strange of a phenomenon it was," Smith, 28, said Friday in a phone interview. "I did not realize how big thing she was. I thought she was a thing my friend saw around Cleveland."
Smith, who had driven through Cleveland and spotted advertisements for Tall Betsy, said he makes videos for his TikTok account, and after a friend didn't produce a song when he suggested it, he wrote a song himself.
His song makes the tall tale even taller -- claiming Tall Betsy "stands nearly 12 feet from the ground."
"I actually made it last October, and the video just completely flopped," he said. "Then I was like, 'Well, I'm just going to post it again this year,' and it kind of blew up."
On Friday, the video had almost 120,000 views. In 2021, the video netted just 2,000 views, he said.
Smith hasn't seen Tall Betsy in person.
"I'm going to try to go to the block party," he said.