Ghosts in Dromgoole’s Closet

Map showing proximity of Elk River to the Melungeon counties.

Aside from the ridiculous racism and bigotry exhibited in her non-fiction works, there are many issues with Dromgoole’s material on both Melungeons and the mountain people. Most of the Melungeon articles come from the same original body of work. The titles may be changed, the paragraphs may be shifted, but all in all, it’s just the same material. This can just as easily be the doing of newspaper staff, so Dromgoole isn’t entirely to blame, but the deceptive practice makes it appear she wrote much more on the topics than she really did. It’s uncertain as to how she achieved the “expert” status on Melungeons.

#1- She Was “Fired” for Her Writing

This should be the most obvious and telling issue with her writings on mountain peoples of all kinds. Her non-fiction cost her the position she held with the Tennessee Senate. It is amazing how this is completely ignored in many research circles today. It diminishes any credibility or validity she might’ve otherwise had.

She was not doing an “exposé.” She wasn’t exposing the corruption in a big company. She wasn’t exposing a crooked politician. She wasn’t threatening the tyranny of some entity that profited by keeping an isolated community impoverished. It was merely non-fiction.

Dromgoole won elections in both 1885 and 1887 with more supportive votes than any other candidate. She was well liked before her articles. What she produced so defamed so many people that she lost her job. You do not lose your job due to reporting the truth. You don’t lose support because you irritated one or two people. When you slander entire regions, that’s another story altogether.

#2 She Wrote Tabloids

It is unfortunate that she didn’t approach the subject and its presentation with more professionalism than sensationalism. Sadly, Dromgoole was a tabloid writer, a yellow journalist when it came to people of the mountains, Melungeon or no. Her work no more proved, presented, or depicted reality than the tabloids do today. She wasn’t at all interested in history, she wanted to reinforce stereotypes and make a name for herself elsewhere.

In just the Melungeon articles, even the most minor and mundane details are given some kind of sinister ambiance. Even thought the majority of rural peoples across the entire nation were very similar, somehow, just the fact that Melungeons did it made it dubious and threatening.

For example, Dromgoole seemed stunned that the Melungeon community had herb doctors, according to her articles. She stressed they were called “yarb doctors,” as was common slang for them in many places, including England. She should know them well because her own Murfreesboro didn’t even have a pharmacy until 1893, either. Herb doctors were wholly common in all rural America throughout the World War II era, and sometimes beyond then.

#3 There’s Never Any Proof

Dromgoole mentions seeing this or that in newspapers or periodicals, but never mentions precisely where. Her works use no citations, no references, and rely exclusively on her own biased opinion. She was not an archeologist or anthropologist. She was not a historian or even a professional genealogist when she wrote on the mountain peoples of Tennessee. She had absolutely no credentials, whatsoever, to set herself apart from every other yellow journalist utilizing the same stereotypes and caricatures of mountain people.


#4 She Didn’t Know Either

Dromgoole wrote: “They were as utter strangers the day I left as on the day I arrived among them.” She was more interested in exploiting a community than getting to know any of them. Her continual inconsistencies proves she didn’t have her facts straight. Her articles are a confused, mish-mash, potpourri of contradicting data.

She wrote a few sentences on how vile and filthy they were, but turned around and discussed how beautiful the Melungeon women’s hands were, or how beautiful their voices could be. The people were “mulattoes,” but then this group or that group was racially “pure.”

They were the laziest and worthless individuals in the mountains, but they were also tobacco farmers and orchard growers. Any individual who has ever raised tobacco, or who has ever been near those who raise tobacco, will know there’s nothing “lazy” about it. The process starts in the autumn and does not stop until the autumn of the next year, just for a single crop. They were shiftless and lacked motivation, but they traveled to Sneedville twice a day, on foot, without fatigue. When they had goods to sell, they carried them to Sneedville to sell. This was a multi-mile hike in a single direction.

Dromgoole boarded with a family kind enough to take her in, mocked their houses and their lives in front of the nation, and then complained because she had to pay for her food.

It Gets Worse

Dromgoole was quick to distance herself from her eastern neighbors. In one interview, she stressed she was not born in the Tennessee mountains, and wasn’t even really brought up there. She just spent her summers there in her family’s vacation cabin. To quote her own words, “Murfreesboro, however, is not in the mountains, not by any means.”

We are left to wonder today just how much of her Melungeon knowledge was real, and how much was embellished. How much of her work is based on what she found in the community, as opposed to was gleaned from eavesdropping on Senators? In one of her stories about how she learned of the Melungeons, she admitted she’d stalked one senator for 6 months to try to learn about them.

Another issue stems from her claim to the media that she didn’t understand what missionaries were doing in remote southern areas because they weren’t “pagan.” Had she visited such a community, it would be clear that the people were in need of education, medicine, structure, and organization, which missionaries provided. If she visited when many today claim, in 1890, she would’ve been there at exactly the same time as the Presbyterians. The religious group constructed schools and brought teachers to the isolated area. By the late 1890s, the Presbyterians had constructed a schoolhouse, helped place permanent teachers in the community, and created living quarters for the school personnel.

Dromgoole’s story of her travel to the Melungeon community also changed. Dromgoole has at least two versions of how she arrived in the Melungeon community. The first involve stalking Senators and undergoing a long process of sifting through clues to find a community that might or might not exist.

The second involved an impulsive decision when she was on Elk River. She told interviewers that her family and friends discouraged her visit the community, but the more they warned her against it, the more she wanted to go. So, one day at the cabin, she slipped out while her father was fishing in the river. She left him a note to say where she’d gone. It sounds like she made a quick get-away, but there was nothing quick about it.

Elk River is well over 330 miles from Hancock County, and over 340 miles from Hawkins County. It is over a five-hour drive to either county with modern automobiles, and Dromgoole visited the Melungeons in the late 1880s.

There’s also the question of her acquiring “authentic” Melungeon garb. There is not another account, by the Presbyterians or any other visitors, of Melungeon “costume” or the need to adorn anything aside from normal attire.

Dromgoole was a prolific author and writer with thousands of published pieces spanning the spectrum of the literary field. Strangely, she is hailed as an expert on Melungeons, although her attention to this community was incredibly brief. Her pieces are not scholarly or lengthy works, in any way, with no sources, no citations, and no hope of verification via documentation. The majority of her statements are embellished chronicles of gossip and hearsay.

The stereotypical “Tennessee moonshiner,” exploded on the pages of newspapers during the 1880s. Dromgoole provided a personal reinforcement of what the papers had promoted. Her works are best known for racial degradations, bombastic depictions, and the absolute reliance on ethnic stereotypes. It’s unsettling that she’s gained such an authoritative status despite her glaring factual manipulations and dislike of the people.



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