The legend of the ghost of Bellamy Bridge is probably Florida’s most famous ghost story. It is centered around an old steel frame bridge that spans the Chipola River in the swamps north of Marianna.
The legend holds that the restless ghost of a young woman named Elizabeth Jane Bellamy roams the swamps around the bridge on dark and foggy nights. The wife of one of Florida’s key antebellum economic and political leaders, she is buried in an overgrown family cemetery not far from the skeletal remains of the old bridge.
Bellamy Bridge is not accessible by car, but can be reached via the 1/2 mile Bellamy Bridge Heritage Trail on Highway 162 north of Marianna. The trail parking area is 1/10 of a mile west of the current Chipola River bridge. The trail is open during daylight hours.
The story of the ghost of Bellamy Bridge is really a tale of two stories. The first is the story of the ghost, a legend that has evolved over more than 100 years of time. The other is the true story of Elizabeth Jane Bellamy, which is far removed from the legendary tale. When the two stories are combined, they create a unique lesson in how real history can join with fiction to create popular folklore.
Let’s start with the legend. It holds that Elizabeth was the beautiful young bride of a prominent Jackson County planter, politician and bank examiner named Dr. Samuel C. Bellamy. The two were deeply in love and planned for their wedding to take place in the back yard of a beautiful mansion that Dr. Bellamy supposedly built for his fiance in nearby Marianna.
The wedding is said to have been a remarkable affair, attracting guests and gifts from as far away as Europe. The two were wed in a garden of roses and in their vows each promised to love the other forever.
In the hours following the wedding, however, story tellers hold that a horrible tragedy struck the young couple. Elizabeth, they say, was
either dancing with her new husband or resting upstairs in a comfortable chair (the stories vary) when her long gown suddenly came in contact with either a candle or an open fireplace. The rich material burst into flames and, before her husband or any of their guests could react, Elizabeth ran screaming from the house. Overcome by the flames, she was horribly injured.
The young woman survived for a few days, writhing in incredible agony, before finding peace in the arms of death. Her body was taken to the plantation of Samuel’s brother, Dr. Edward C. Bellamy, and laid to rest in a grove of trees near the Chipola River. The legend holds, however, that the grave was unable to contain her love for her lost husband. A spectral figure dressed in white began to appear at night along the banks of the river. In later years, when Bellamy Bridge was built at the site, her ghost was often seen in the swamps surrounding it.
It is a fascinating tale, but is it true? That’s been a question for years and the answer is just as colorful and tragic as the ghost story itself.
Samuel and Elizabeth Bellamy were real people. He was the son of a wealthy planter and she was the daughter of General William Croom. They grew up near each other in North Carolina, but she was still a young girl when he left home to study medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
Their courtship apparently began at about the time that Samuel’s older brother, Edward, married Elizabeth’s older sister, Ann. Even though Samuel was 9 years her elder, the two families approved of the match and records verify that the two were married on July 15, 1834 in North Carolina and three years before the supposed Florida wedding and fire!
Both the Croom and Bellamy families took great interest in the vast lands available for settlement in the new Territory of Florida. Elizabeth’s brother, Dr. Hardy Bryan Croom, was already living in Florida and it was not long before the two Bellamy brothers and their wives decided to relocate to the territory as well.
Edward and Ann purchased the Fort plantation where Bellamy Bridge stands today, while Samuel and Elizabeth acquired land they called the Rock Cave Plantation along Baker Creek a few miles northwest of Marianna. They lived there with their young son, Alexander, and more than 80 African slaves they brought with them from North Carolina.
The lands along the Chipola River and Baker Creek were ideal for growing cotton and sugar cane and the plantations prospered. The swamps, however, were also breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Sicknesses such as malaria and yellow fever plagued the early settlers of the area and it was from fever, not fire, that Elizabeth died.
Samuel’s letters and an obituary in the Tallahassee Floridian indicate that she died from fever on May 11, 1837. She was only 18 years old at the time.
It is likely that Elizabeth was cared for by her sister, Ann, during her final illness. She was laid to rest in a grove of trees near the site where Bellamy Bridge stands today. One week later, her young son Alexander also died from fever and was buried by her side.
Samuel Bellamy never remarried and the old legend is correct in its assertion that he mourned for his wife the rest of his life.
He went on to serve as a delegate to Florida’s Constitutional Convention, Clerk of Courts for Jackson County and Secretary for the Florida Supreme Court. He took his own life in 1853 by cutting his throat with a razor at Chattahoochee, Florida.
The massive mansion that legend holds he built for his young bride did not stand during her lifetime, but was started nine months after her death. It was demolished during the 20th century and survives today only in faded photographs.
So how did a ghost story about a woman burning to death on her wedding night evolve from the true story of a young wife who died from fever when she was 18 years old? The answer to that question is as fascinating as the legend itself.
During the final days of her life, the famed 19th century novelist Caroline Lee Hentz lived in Marianna. As time passed, people began to associate the places described in her novels with real places in Jackson County. Her Ernest Linwood, or the Long Moss Spring, for example, is now commonly associated with Jackson Blue Springs, although the book was published before she moved to Marianna.
before she moved to Marianna.
In is in Ernest Linwood, or the Long Moss Spring that Mrs. Hentz described a tragic wedding night incident in which a young slave woman
was severely burned after her dress came into contact with an open flame. She died from her injuries and her ghost soon began to appear in the area of her grave. The home in which the tragedy took place was called the “Bellamy plantation” in the book.
The author wrote in the preface that the book was based on real events. The fire that took the young bride’s life took place in Columbus, Georgia, however, and not in Jackson County, Florida. And the unfortunate young woman was not Elizabeth Jane Bellamy, a darling of antebellum society, but a young enslaved woman.
Caroline Lee Hentz died in Marianna and is buried at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. Over time local people came to believe that all of her books were based in Jackson County. The story of the wedding night fire on the “Bellamy plantation” was associated with Bellamy Bridge and the lonely graves of Elizabeth Jane Bellamy and her child.
As time passed, people forgot almost entirely about the novelist and her books, but the ghost story and the legend of the tragic wedding night fire survived. The story grew from a novel that was based on real events from another state. In Jackson County folklore it blended with the tragic tale of a Florida family. The legend is a remarkable literary and cultural treasure.
None of this disproves claims of ghost sightings at Bellamy Bridge. The true story of Elizabeth Bellamy’s life and her tragic death from fever just one week before the death of her child is more than sufficient to serve as the basis of a ghost story. In fact, people talked of a ghost long before the “burning bride” story came to be associated with the bridge. A Marianna newspaper reported in the 19th century that the “lady of Bellamy Bridge has been seen of late.”
Many people claim to have seen a ghost at Bellamy Bridge. Their descriptions vary. Some report seeing a ball of fire descend from the air down through the framework of the old bridge. Others report that mysterious white lights appear in the surrounding swamps. And still others describe seeing the ghostly figure of a young woman walking through the swamps on the west side of the bridge.
The Bellamy Bridge Heritage Trail, a 1/2 mile walking path that leads to the historic bridge, is at 4057 Highway 162, Marianna, Florida (between Greenwood & US 231) just 1/10th of a mile west of the Chipola River. See the map below for directions. The trail is free to visit.
To learn more about the trail, please visit www.bellamybridge.org.