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Savannah Ghost History

A History of Ghosts and the Ghosts of History
photographs by Rob Levin
Compiled from reliable sources and Copyrighted by Haunting Tours, Inc

Strangeness permeates Savannah; strangeness that may date back to its settlement and even perhaps before to the time when the coast was inhabited by Indians and pirates and a few Spanish missionaries. History hung in that limbo for a century with the British to the north and Spanish to the south engaged in a somewhat lackadaisical struggle for supremacy till General James Oglethorpe came with his colonists in 1733. The coastal waters and islands were often a refuge for pirates, outlaws and others who were not necessarily friends to authority.

Much of Savannah’s haunted history is intertwined with recorded incidents. This tends to give credence to the many ghost stories. An 1830s townhouse at Bull and Perry Streets has sent at least one family packing, according to Margaret Wayt DeBolt’s book, Savannah Spectres. A family had just rented the house and on their first night they heard a scream upstairs followed by the sobbing cry “Oh, so much blood! So much blood!” The family spent the night in a hotel and moved their furnishings out of the house the next day.

The city of Savannah is literally built on its dead. Cemeteries were built on the edge of the settlement. As the colony grew into a port city the cemeteries were absorbed and homes and businesses built on former burial sites. Some of the dead were moved, some probably weren’t. And some just turn up. A mummified body was found in the walls of the Foley House some years back.

But, even before settlers arrived in Savannah this high ground known to the Creek and Choctaw peoples as Yamacraw Bluffs was probably a burial ground. Native Americans from this culture literally built their towns around their dead. When Oglethorpe arrived with his colonists new bodies were soon interred. By 1750 the original cemetery plot was full of Yellow Fever victims and other unfortunates and a new cemetery was established a few hundred yards to the south and east of the original burial plot. A cemetery for Savannah’s Jewish community had already been established at what is now the median ground of Oglethorpe avenue east of Bull street as well as under Independent Presbyterian church.

The Revolutionary War saw a desperate battle fought on this ground. Chippewa Square did not then exist and this ground was occupied by fortifications. The bloody conflict of the siege of Savannah was contested from here to the west side of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. This struggle, after the Battle of Bunker Hill the second bloodiest battle of the war, left Savannah in British hands despite significant French assistance to the colonists in their attempt to capture the city.

But, there may be more to Savannah’s strangeness than just the dead. After all, people die everywhere, every city has its share of graveyards that have been displaced by development. Few places have such a history of hauntings, of strange tales of the paranormal than Savannah. For one clue we can go back to the beginning of the colony.

Oglethorpe’s founding of the city is famous in great part because of his venture into urban planning. But, what did his plan involve? What was its basis? Historians have speculated on its origins, perhaps in freemasonry or the Biblical design of Solomon’s Temple. Perhaps there is more to the city’s plan than we know or imagine. By one measurement – using cubits – the original city was a square 1000 cubits on a side. The square is an important pattern in occult lore, a magical square can be used to trace a talisman to achieve a purpose or set a tone or direction for an ongoing enterprise. Could this plan have been, in effect, a magical design of such power and persistence that spirits are trapped between two planes of existence? No one knows.

One may assume that any purposes Oglethorpe might have incorporated in an occult dimension of the plan would be extensions of his dream of a utopian, commercially successful colony based on the efforts of free and industrious men – lawyers, slaves, Catholics, and whisky were banned. Oglethorpe’s bans did not stand.

Any force the plan might have been intended to harness has not worked uniformly for the city’s good. Tragedy has followed Savannah as periods of good fortune have been stopped dead by wars, recessions, fires and plagues. Much of the city has been burned as close-packed wooden structures went up in flames that spread from block to block. That is why so many homes still standing are built of brick.

In the early 19th Century the city was cursed by a departing newspaper publisher embittered by the poor reception of his weekly. “I leave you, Savannah, a curse that is far/The worst of all curses – to remain as you are!” John M. Harney wrote in 1820, shortly before his departure from the city to Charleston and thence Kentucky, where he died a few years later. Admittedly, 1820 was a bad year for the city with a major fire and a yellow fever epidemic.

Whether Harney’s curse took hold is a matter of interpretation. The city’s still much like it was and some tragedies and changes have been avoided. Sherman did not burn Savannah but other conflagrations have destroyed large parts of the city as did 20th Century developers.

Whatever Savannah’s mystical connections, there is one thing that is certain. A lot of people seem to believe they have had paranormal experiences in the city. There are hundreds of ghost stories. And strange occurrences connected to the paranormal still occur. Just recently a local woman who had organized “Psychic Fairs” was brutally murdered and dismembered, allegedly by her father. That should be enough to set another spirit adrift or at least fuel tales until well into the next century.

Savannah’s ghosts have connections to history that stretch far beyond the boundaries of this sleepy coastal city. The story goes that when Girl Scout founder Juliette Gordon Low’s mother, Nellie Gordon, died February 22, 1917, the ghost of her husband, General William Gordon, was seen by one of the daughters-in-law waiting in a room next to the room where Nellie lay with her five living children. A servant reported seeing the man as well.

The Gordon children reported “that when she died, her face took on the radiance of a bride, going to meet her bridegroom.,” according to her biography, Lady From Savannah, written by niece Daisy Gordon Lawrence with Gladys Denny Shultz. Mary Stewart Gordon Platt wrote that the servant who sighted the general said the general appeared well and happy. “I thought you lake to know de General come fetch her hisself, suh,” the servant is reported to have commented.

However, according to reports, the general may not have actually taken Nellie Gordon completely away. There have been reports she is still walking the old Gordon home. Objects disappear and reappear in plain sight. Savannah Spectres quotes the home’s maintenance man saying he frequently caught glimpses of a Nellie “wearing a long blue robe, with flowers all over it,” sitting at the breakfast table when he would arrive early in the mornings. The faint sounds of a pianoforte, such as Mrs. Gordon loved and played, have been reported as well.

An exorcism has been performed in at least one Savannah residence. On December 7, 1963 an Episcopal bishop conducted a 45 minute ceremony to cleanse the Hampton Lillibridge House on East Saint Julian Street of spirits. The house, which had been moved from another location, had a rollicking history of inexplicable incidents.

One young man was found face down hugging the floor in an upstairs room when the house was undergoing renovation. The desperate man had been convinced that a force beyond nature was attempting to pull him through an opening in the floor – a drop of thirty or more feet. This incident was reportedly locally at the time and appeared in ghost hunter Hans Holzer’s book, The Phantoms of Dixie.

Restoration work proceeded slowly because workers left the house due to strange occurrences or just paused to listen. Jim Williams, the Georgia antique dealer who owned and was restoring the home later was tried three times for the murder of his associate, Danny Hansford. These trials inspired the bestseller, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, in which Williams, now deceased, was the central character.

Williams moved into the Mercer House on Monterey Square after completing the Hampton Lillibridge restoration and became well known for his fabulous parties. Some years after Williams death, reports surfaced that visitors had observed lights and festivities in the elegant mansion on the very same night of the year as Williams most opulent annual party – yet there had been no party. Nancy Roberts, a prolific South Carolina writer of tales of the supernatural reported in her book, Georgia Ghosts, that two New York visitors had witnessed this phenomena in 1994, five years to the day after Williams last big gala in 1989 that celebrated his acquittal in the Hansford shooting.

According to tradition, not everyone sees ghosts. Sometimes they appear to special persons from their lives, sometimes they may appear to psychically gifted individuals or they may make apparently random appearances, driven by who knows what strange logic. A maid at the old City Hotel on Bay Street is reported to have been found in tears outside the gate of the Colonial Cemetery when she followed an interesting young man home from the hotel. He walked into the cemetery and disappeared, she told worried co-workers who discovered her.

Some people are said to be gifted with psychic abilities while others do not have the appropriate sort of “energy.” Accomplished psychics may talk of being able to see, “The Other Side,” and tribes around the world were guided by medicine men or shamans who were often said to have received their wisdom from visions.

In a certain way, tribal culture is very close to Savannah. In the 1930s a book was compiled by a Depression era federal writer’s project consisting of interviews with living persons who knew people who had been brought from Africa as slaves. The book, Drums and Shadows, was published in 1941. In Savannah’s urban neighborhoods old traditions were passed on as a sort of magic revolving around charms and “root doctors.” Porches and shutters were painted voodoo blue, also known as “haunt” blue because of the color’s apparent ability to dissuade visitors from the spirit world.

The introduction to Drums and Shadows sums up the situation, “Today, sorcery is still practiced. Modern root doctors … perform mystic rites and promise to work miracles and cures. … Spirits of the departed are still believed to make frequent visitations to this earth and are as real … as his next door neighbor.”

To the urban African American, even in the 1930s, spirits and people able to manipulate them, were parts of daily life. Illnesses were caused by curses and witches were said to “ride” men in their sleep, the torment eventually leading to physical degeneration and death. A broom, which a witch reputedly could not cross, would be laid to protect an entry. Salt was sprinkled in doorways and around beds to keep residents safe. As recently as a couple of years ago a published police report told of a woman throwing salt at another and accusing her of witchcraft. One story tells of a man who woke from tormented dreams to find a cat at the foot of his bed. He struck the cat violently and it ran away. He followed it out of the house and down the street to the home of a woman who sat gasping from the pain of three freshly broken ribs. She begged him not to kill her.

Conjure was practiced by those with “the power,” according to interviews published in Drums and Shadows. Bad luck was blamed not on the vagaries of fate but upon the ill will of enemies as manifested through the work of a “root doctor” or “conjuh man.” Persons with power were reported to have escaped various dangers including scrapes with the law. Hexes were placed on individuals through the creation of a “hand” composed of a bit of the person’s hair, nail-clippings, spittle or clothing and other ingredients with the intent of doing harm, sometimes fatally. Belief that unexplained illness were due to such conjure and might involve the infestation of the afflicted body with snakes or worms was widespread.

The belief in occult phenomena held by occupants of such Depression-era African American communities as Tin City to the east and Yamacraw, Frogtown and Currytown to the west, contributed to assumptions that the communities were inundated with ignorance and superstition although many learned persons in both England and the United States, including poet William Butler Yeats, were practicing ritual magic during roughly the same time period.

Tradition from Africa and elsewhere around the world has it that a person born with a caul, the remnants of the placenta, over their face, is gifted with a special sight – the ability to perceive the spirit world. Many of the persons interviewed for Drums and Shadows recounted the experiences of relatives born with “the caul” and such persons were regarded with a certain amount of fear and respect.

Some experts think a person’s attitude toward spectral presences is important as well. Those who believe see, doubters do not. In some cases the haunting of a home is related to the psychic energies of its occupants. Mrs. DeBolt tells of a ouija board séance in a frame townhouse at Price and Perry Streets that residents believed was inhabited by a spirit. Using the board on a stormy night, the psychic explorers asked for a sign that a spirit was present. The board made no response. The intensity of the storm increased. A freakish gust of wind sent a heavy branch crashing down just outside the window. Again they used the ouija board to ask for a sign. “I just did,” the board spelled out. Years later, Mrs. DeBolt reported a psychic visiting the house, totally unaware of the past sance, experienced discomfort at the window overlooking the gnarled old oak that had sent its limb crashing down.

The Davenport House has a long history that includes appearances of a spectral cat that cannot be explained and other houses have given birth to even more amazing stories.

The Kehoe House, built in 1892 by Irish immigrant William Kehoe, has gained a reputation as one of the nation’s most romantic bed and breakfasts. But that’s not the whole story. The brick mansion is well known for ghostly presences in rooms 201 and 203. These presences have manifest themselves in many ways. Mrs. Roberts reported seeing a female form in Room 201 and her husband was perplexed by the scent of roses that permeated the room. Others have noticed similar phenomena on the second floor of the mansion. A recent entry in the guest book mentioned “a pleasant ghostly experience,” and current staff have reported seeing apparitions on the second floor of the inn.

The dedication of love is often speculated to be at the root of a haunting. The ghost of a servant girl named Anna is said to inhabit the 17Hundred90 Inn and Restaurant. As the story goes, Anna fell in love with a sailor and threw herself into the brick courtyard from a third floor balcony as the sails of his ship disappeared out of sight down the Savannah River, carrying her love back to the sea. Neighbors have reported seeing Anna on the porch. Unexplained chair rockings, window openings and noises on the stairs have been attributed to Anna as well.

Shipbuilder Henry F. Willink also lost his love to sea. But in a different way. As a young shipwright he wanted a ship of his own and set out to build it, enlisting his wife’s assistance. She was helping him one day when she tripped and fell into the river and was swept away by the outgoing tide. Dragged down by her sodden heavy clothing she drowned despite Willink’s efforts to rescue her.

After the loss of his wife, Willink’s sleep was troubled and he would often wake at night and unable to return to slumber, go back to work on his ship, slamming the door of his cottage behind him. Beginning to think of his work on the ship as a memorial to his wife, he decided to name the vessel in her honor. One night, while at work, he looked up and saw his wife standing on the deck, just where she had fallen to her death. He was so startled he stepped backward into the water. He was rescued but his wife had vanished by the time he returned to the deck.

Years later, as his death, neighbors reported hearing the door slam and footsteps trudging off to the river, Henry off to work on his ship. The house has been moved from its original location south of Habersham to its present site on St. Julian Street and the sounds in the night are not reported so often, anymore.

Other Savannah ghost stories are connected to the sea as well. The Pirate’s House, where Captain Flint of Treasure Island fame is said to have drunkenly died with the last words, bring aft more rum, me Darby,” is reported to be inhabited by spirits in the upstairs rooms where seamen once stayed. Strange sounds and goings on have kept employees from visiting those rooms after dark. Many believe that the bloodthirsty and rum-thirsty Flint still haunts the old frame building.

Behind and below the Pirate’s House are what is left of the brick walls of Fort Wayne, named after Revolutionary War General “Mad Anthony” Wayne. Duels were sometimes fought below those walls in the early 19th Century.

The Lafite brothers, Jean, famous for aiding General Andrew Jackson in his victory at the Battle of New Orleans, and Pierre are said to have visited Savannah and Jean is reported to have married a Savannah girl and moved to the Yucatan, “redeemed by the love of a noble woman.”

Oglethorpe Avenue once marked the southern boundary of the city and was known as South Broad Street. Around the turn of the century Conrad Aiken, one of America’s most respected authors, was growing up on the tree-shaded avenue and he later immortalized the scenes of the time in verse. Here are some lines from Aiken’s poem, The Coming Forth by Day of Osiris Jones.

“The house in Broad Street, red brick, with nine rooms
the weedgrown graveyard with its row of tombs
the jail from which imprisoned faces grinned
at stiff palmettos flashing in the wind
the engine-house, with engines and a tank
in which young alligators swam and stank,
the bell-tower, of red iron, where the bell
gonged of the fires in a tone from hell.”

And there certainly was a hellish aspect to young Aiken’s life in Savannah. His father, Dr. William F. Aiken, an intelligent, even brilliant and very intense man, manifested what Conrad Aiken later described as the family petit mal of mental instability. He behaved erratically and believed his wife and her family, whom, he thought, intended to put him into an asylum, were persecuting him. Obsessed with this fear, Dr. Aiken enclosed himself behind a wall of paranoid assumptions, amazing an associate, for example, by responding to a simple “How are you?” with avoidance and finally the response, “For an answer to that question I shall have to refer you to my lawyer.”

Alexander Lawrence gives an excellent account of young Aiken’s ordeal in a 1968 article, “228 Habersham Street,” published in The Georgia Review, Fall, 1968. Dr. Aiken and his wife Anna quarreled tumultuously – a contrast to their previously gay lifestyle, according to Lawrence. Conrad found sanctuary in the cemetery, then enclosed by a brick wall, overgrown with vines and weeds and not so heavily shaded, referring to it in Ushant, An Essay published in 1952, as “that jungle graveyard.” He recalled that “one could pry loose the bricks of the ancient vaults and crawl down into the warm dust to find broken boards and an old brown bone or two.” On Christmas Eve, Conrad would accompany his father to the cemetery to shoot off Roman candles. Remembering his father in “The Blue Voyage,” Aiken recalled, “There was something angelic about him, later it became diabolic.” Dr. Aiken repeatedly tried to take his own life, self-administering a large dose of morphine and atropine on one occasion and on another turning the gas and telling her they “would now see who would emerge from the apartment alive,” according to the Morning News, February 28, 1901 account of the Aiken family tragedy.

In the last week of February, 1901, Dr. Aiken quarrelled with his wife, keeping her locked in her room on Monday night. Tuesday morning the quarreling resumed. Conrad Aiken recalled a silence and he waited breathless till he heard his father’s voice counting “One! Two! Three!” a scream and then a pistol shot. The counting resumed and there came a second shot.

Conrad rushed across the street to the police station where he told patrolman J. Harry Lange, “Papa has just shot mama and himself.” Returning to the house with the boy to investigate, the policeman found Mrs. Aiken on her bed in “an easy and natural position” and Dr. Aiken face down on the floor with a .32 caliber pistol in his hand.

Colonial Park Cemetery is now home to a number of shooting victims, including Declaration of Independence signer Button Gwinnett who was killed in a duel by rival Lachlan McIntosh. As South Broad marked the southern boundary of the town for a time, duels were often fought in this area, both the cemetery proper and its surroundings, including a narrow lot at the rear of the cemetery, now a playground and park, where mass graves dug from 1820 onward held victims of epidemics.

The year, 1820, was particularly bad for Savannah, with 464 buildings destroyed by fire in a hellish 48-hour conflagration and 666 people dying of Yellow Fever in a two-week period later in the year. Many of the fever victims found their way to a mass grave behind the cemetery.

At least one resident of the cemetery who was shot has gained some fame because his assailant’s name has been stricken from his gravestone. Odrey Miller’s headstone originally bore the name of the person who shot him but it was chiseled away and research has been unable to cast any light on who might have fired the fatal shot, according to Savannah Spectres.

Some ghosts may not even know they are dead, according to a psychic who accompanied Mrs. DeBolt on many of her fact-finding errands in the compilation of the stories that make up Savannah Spectres. These spirits may mindlessly repeat their last action such as tripping down stairs. There are reports of a number of haunted staircases in the city, often where a uneven step is accompanied by a psychic chill. This coldness pervades rooms and parts of rooms all over the historic district. The liquor room in an old cotton warehouse that now houses a seafood restaurant on River Street was both cool and depressing. Even the owner did not like to go there alone. The employees refused. Mrs. DeBolt’s psychic friend said he felt the presence of a slave dying of pneumonia or some other illness, left alone under a thin blanket.

Wars, are of course, big contributors to the ghost population. At several locations in downtown Savannah and surrounding areas sightings of spectral Confederate soldiers have been reported. Or, perhaps there are different soldiers, inhabiting different areas, each walking their own patrol, so to speak.

Other ghosts also seem intent on carrying out their duties in life. A faithful nurse is said to inhabit the old Pest House where seamen and immigrants may have been quarantined on entering the port. The house, now located off Highway 17 south of Savannah, was visited by Mrs. DeBolt who reported the owner told her she had seen a young woman, apparently a nurse, who announced, “You know I have to stay here, until they either get well, or they all die.” Perhaps the nurse became ill and died herself, remaining in the house even when it was moved several miles from its original location east of Savannah.

Ghosts have been reported as inhabiting furnishings or other objects as well as homes. Sometimes these objects then take on a mind of their own. Two blue marbles that were found behind a baseboard in the top floor of a home at Lincoln and State Streets apparently sparked a string of odd occurrences, according to Mrs. DeBolt’s book. The house, completed in 1856, was originally occupied by Mary Ann Barnard, of the family which gave their name to Barnard Street. Other prominent occupants followed until the Willaim H. Daniel family moved in and remained till 1909. The Daniels had three sons, and it has been speculated that the marbles might have belonged to one of those boys.

Whoever the owner of the marbles, they are reported to have had a link to weirdness. Once the marbles were discovered in the 1970s the owners of the house, a lawyer and his wife, began to experience the inexplicable. Things were moved, there were strange noises, a stack of napkins was found wet with the surroundings completely dry, doors opened by themselves. In her book Mrs. DeBolt reports a door opened by itself while she was interviewing the owner of the home.

The haunted world is a democratic one. The spirits of people rich and poor, master and servant, are reported, often still about the task or agendas of their daily lives in the land of the living. Mary Telfair is said to enforce her ban on eating, drinking and amusements in the art museum bearing her name. In another house a old African American servant still makes her presence felt in the kitchen.

James Habersham Jr. is reported to still make his presence felt in the Olde Pink House Restaurant and Planters Tavern where he made his home from 1779. A leading merchant and planter, young James took the cause of the Colonies against his loyalist father. James the younger’s presence is especially felt on quiet Sunday afternoons, checking in on his old home.

One grand house is said to be blessed with the presence of a music-loving butler who appears from time to time at the door during musical entertainments, tapping a foot, continuing his life-long love of music beyond the grave.

After a while, the tales of Savannah’s supernatural begin to take on a sort of concreteness, blending themselves with the stucco, brick and ironwork of the city. Stories of ghosts have become so interwoven with the city’s history that sometimes it is hard to separate the real from the unreal and one begins to doubt the difference. After a while it is easy to believe the shade of Lady Huntingdon still walks the grounds of the Bethesda orphanage she worked to support during her life two and a half centuries ago.

This tendency toward acceptance from skepticism may be another aspect of Savannah’s sense of strangeness or it may only be the symptom of something even stranger. Who knows?