Skinned Tom is an urban legend that originated in Wellend, Tennessee, most likely sometime in the 1930s or 1940s. It tells a cautionary tale of a man who became involved with the wrong woman and paid a very high price for it.
Tom, or sometimes Thomas Beltram, was a good-looking man; friendly, witty, charming... the very model of a playboy or a classic Southern gentleman. If he had a fault, it was that he was a "love 'em and leave 'em" kind of guy - he would woo one woman and declare his love for her, but then just as quickly abandon her the moment someone else caught his eye. The fact that everybody knew this didn't stop all the ladies of his small town from falling from him though - in fact, it only seemed to make him even more desirable to them.
As the list of his conquests grew longer and longer though, Tom had to start looking outside of the town where he lived in order to find new ladies he hadn't yet been with. He would travel a lot, going back and forth from his home to wherever his latest paramore was, and quite often would end up bragging to fellow male passengers about his romantic escapades. Tom was something of a peacock and a braggart, after all.
One day, however, Tom met Eleanor, and he was instantly smitten. Eleanor was a beautiful young woman, with long blonde hair and blue eyes, as well as an alluring smile. She fell for Tom just as much as he fell for her, and the two were soon lovers.
Here is where the story diverges. Some versions say that Tom didn't know that Eleanor was married; others say that he knew but didn't care. Some versions say that Tom just couldn't keep himself from bragging about his latest conquest and inadvertently ended up boasting about his and Eleanor's trysts to her husband without realising the other man's identity. Others say that the two just didn't bother with being too discreet and word soon got back to Eleanor's husband that way. Sometimes, Tom tells a stranger he meets on a train - the husband, of course - that he also plans to swindle Eleanor out of an expensive piece of jewelry as well. But whatever the details of this part of the story are, the climax is always the same.
Tom and Eleanor meet for their tryst. Sometimes they meet in Eleanor's home, but usually they meet in a car in an isolated, but well-known Lover's Lane area. While they are in flagrante delicto, though, there is a knock at the door or the window. To the couple's horror, Eleanor's husband is there. And he's holding a large hunting knife.
Before either of them can react, Eleanor's husband jerks the door open and stabs her once in the stomach, before turning his attention to Tom. Ignoring the young man's pleas for mercy, he grabs Tom and drags him out of the car (or house) and into the nearby woods. For a long while, the only things heard are Tom's terrified and agonised screams, echoing through the area. Several hours later, the husband walks back out of the woods, alone, and heads straight to the sheriff to give himself up.
When the sheriff and his deputies arrive at the scene, they find Eleanore injured, but still alive. When they go into the woods to look for Tom, however, they are greeted with a terrible sight. Hung up in the trees is Tom's skin, having been expertly removed by Eleanor's husband and his hunting knife. As for the rest of Tom, however, there is no sign. People assume that Tom either crawled off somewhere to die, or his flayed body was found by animals and torn apart, and thought no more of it.
That would have been the end of the story, or at least people might have expected it to be. But a few years later, a new story started to circulate throughout the area. Courting couples and young lovers seeking some privacy in the lovers' lanes and backroads of Tennessee started to report horrifying encounters. They claimed to have seen a bloody, emaciated-looking man - almost as though he were just a bloody skeleton with bits of raw flesh hanging from his bones - watching them from the woods. Sometimes the bloody man would do more than just watch - terrified couples would report that the man tried to get into their cars and that he was armed with a large hunting knife.
Skinned Tom, the stories said, was now doomed to haunt the woods and backroads of Tennessee and the surrounding areas. Depending on who you asked, Tom was either a warning to other couples to take care in their relationships, lest they end up like him; that he was now seeking out other unfaithful partners to teach them the same terrible lesson that he had learned; or, in perhaps the most gruesome explanation, Tom now roamed the area, hoping to find someone with suitable skin that he could use to replace his own...
Have you seen the ghost of Skinned Tom?
Bloody red bones with the skin all gone
Ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh
Wouldn't it be chilly with no skin on.
In researching the legend of Skinned Tom, I found plenty of websites and blogs retelling the story - or one of the variations of it at any rate - but absolutely nothing on the history or origins of the legend. As we know from looking at similar urban legend/ghost stories such as the Vanishing Hitchhiker, even when the story is clearly fictional and/or extremely improbable, there are still clues to trace the first telling of the story or some vaguely similar real event that might have served as the basis for the legend. However, in the case of Skinned Tom, there doesn't appear to be any of that. The best I can do is place the beginnings of the legend as being - probably - somewhere in the 1930s or maybe 1940s, as most versions of the story say that Tom was alive and met his fate in the 1930s, and cars are mentioned in most retellings, meaning that it most likely couldn't have originated before the 1920s at the earliest.
The story of Skinned Tom is, at least in part, a morality tale, meant to warn young people all about the dangers of sex outside of marriage and/or cheating on your partner. "Don't go to Lover's Lane or Skinned Tom will get you!" "Don't cheat on your partner or Skinned Tom will take your skin and wear it!" (Or, you know, just try not to cheat on your partner in general without needing the threat of a supernatural skinless ghoul wielding a knife as an incentive.) More than anything, though, it's a campfire tale; a ghost story for kids to tell each other in the woods at night or at sleepovers. Because with no sources and absolutely no historical proof, it certainly has no basis in reality.
Skinned Tom (Villains Wiki)
"Skinned Tom: The Urban Legend That Gets Under Your… Well, Skin" (Scary Studies)
Skinned Tom (Scary for Kids)
Urban Legend: Skinned Tom (Vocal Media)