The swamps surrounding Marianna, Florida, are full of everything necessary for a good, old-fashioned ghost story: ancient trees clothed in moss cobwebs; the mysterious rustle and splash of unseen animals or phantoms; a rusting, creaking steel frame bridge, patinaed with age and untold stories; and a mysterious figure who appears on the banks of the river, seemingly beckoning to her past. It comes as no surprise that the swamp is home to a legendary ghost tale, one of love and life lost. What makes the ghost story of Bellamy Bridge unique, however, is not just the tale itself, but the history upon which the story is based and the transformation of reality into legend.
Locals of Jackson County, Florida, can recite the tragic tale of the ghost of Bellamy Bridge on cue. Elizabeth Jane Croom Bellamy was the idyllic bride of a distinguished Jackson County planter and politician, Dr. Samuel C. Bellamy. On their wedding night their beautiful plantation home on the banks of the Chipola River was decked with fresh flowers and lit by the burning wicks of hundreds of candles. The bride and groom glided to the dance floor hand in hand while their guests looked on in admiration at the young couple, imagining the story their lives would hold. As bride and groom sailed with grace across the dance floor, Elizabeth’s dress grazed the wick of a candle; almost instantaneously her white gown was engulfed in crimson flames. She ran from the house, her glowing figure trailed by her screams and her desperate husband. Though the flames were extinguished, her end was unavoidable; Elizabeth held onto life a few more days, enduring the agony of her extensive burns before sliding into death. Her ghost began appearing on the banks of the river after her passing, unable to abandon the husband and life that was so cruelly taken from her on the brink of her happiness.
There is, in fact, some truth to the story. Elizabeth and Samuel Bellamy were real people who did truly live (and die) near the Chipola River in Florida, but outside those facts their story is very different from the popular ghost tale—although nearly as tragic. Elizabeth, the daughter of General William Croom, and Samuel, the son of a wealthy planter, grew up together in North Carolina. After their elder brother and sister were married, the two began their courtship, eventually marrying in North Carolina in 1834. Both couples, eager to invest in the new territory, moved to Florida; Samuel and Elizabeth settled at Rock Cave Plantation with their young son, Alexander, and eighty slaves brought with them from North Carolina. Though the lush and fertile soils of the swamps were the key to their venture’s success, they also harbored the family’s downfall. The mosquitos that bred in the murky swamps spread disease, and it was one such bug that took the life of the beautiful Elizabeth and their son in 1837. Distraught and inconsolable, Samuel mourned the loss of his young family for years, finally ending his own life in 1853.
Though both these tales are tragic and certainly appropriate foundations for ghost stories, the transition of truth into myth—especially a myth so entirely different from reality—is curious. In the nineteenth century, the popular novelist Carolina Lee Hentz moved to Marianna to spend her final years in the warm climate. Many of the author’s tales became wrongly associated with landmarks throughout Jackson County, even though many of them were written prior to her residence in Florida. One of her stories told the tale of a slave wedding gone awry: a young slave woman, a favorite of her mistress, was allowed to celebrate her wedding in the big house as a token of her owner’s affections. But her dream turned into a nightmare when her wedding dress caught the flames of a nearby candle. The tale of the burning bride is actually true—but Hentz used an event in Columbus, Georgia—not Marianna—as the basis for her story. Since she named the plantation in her story Bellamy Plantation, however, the associations were inevitable.
As time passed and Hentz’s works faded into obscurity, the true tale of the Bellamys was also lost to the annals of time. But locals remembered the tale and the name, and a new ghost story was born. Believers claim to have seen a ball of fire hovering in the air above the steel bridge, or a mysterious white light floating through the swamp, or even the figure of a young woman hesitating on the bank of the river—a young woman whose life, however lost, was stolen too soon.