The Haunted South
An early-evening mist had turned the view of [the] Square into a soft-focus stage set with pink azaleas billowing beneath a tattered valance of live oaks and Spanish moss.
--Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
Alice Riley's last moments took place on a similar stage in Hanging Square, now known as Wright Square, in the early months of 1735. The grace of the locale was overshadowed by the excitement of the occasion--the new colony of Georgia was hanging its first murderess.
Alice was an indentured servant for local livestock farmer William Wise. Wise ordered Alice to attend to his personal hygiene, and as a result of abuse or disgust, six months into her servitude Wise was found drowned in his bathwater. Alice was imprisoned and convicted, but when her claims that she was pregnant were corroborated, she was allowed to live until just after her baby was delivered. It's said that if a young mother and her baby walk through Wright Square near or after sunset, they are likely to be approached by a woman in period dress, looking for her lost baby. The Savannah police have been called several times by alarmed tourists, but by the time they arrive, Alice Riley has vanished.
. . .
There is something in the Southern air. Call it miasma or magic, there is a shimmering quality that invites imagination like a will o' the wisp draws travelers into the bog. It's in the summer haze, in the Spanish moss, in the live oaks whose ancient roots drink deeply of salty mystery. Old Southern cities like Savannah, Charleston, and New Orleans are known for their hauntings. They draw a dark fascination for both visitors and residents. The South has even birthed its own branch of literature--Southern Gothic --immovably rooted in its setting and dedicated to the macabre contradictions of its people. So why is the South haunted, and why are we so particularly fascinated with our Southern ghosts?
It's nothing new that Southerners love telling stories. In picturesque, historic cities our habit of oral tradition has lent itself to a booming ghost tour business. A casual search turned up 40 Savannah tours, 15 in Charleston, and upwards of 70 in New Orleans. Most of the guides, especially if they’ve been in the business long enough, will swear they’ve seen real ghosts.
Ex-tour guide and ghost hunter David Purvis says downtown Savannah is chock-full of spectral activity. He puts it down to two main causes. One, the city is built over graveyards and burial grounds. As colonial Savannah grew, the cemeteries on the edges of town were paved over. The brick wall that serves as the eastmost boundary of Colonial Park Cemetery is covered in tombstones that were removed to make way for Abercorn Street. Even more sinister, several of the thousands claimed by yellow fever in the early 19th Century appear to have been buried alive, the interior of their coffins decorated with chilling signs of struggle. Then there's the river. David says rivers retain and amplify spiritual energy. The Savannah River is a conduit of memory, its murky depths holding record of all the port city's complicity in shanghais, smuggling, and, of course, the slave trade.
Perhaps the epicenter of malicious spiritual energy in Savannah, 432 Abercorn street was cursed from the moment its foundation was laid. In 1868, Civil War general Benjamin Wilson chose to build his family's new and extravagant city home on top of an old slave burial ground. Shortly after moving in, Mrs. Wilson succumbed to yellow fever. The legend follows that General Wilson, a strict disciplinarian, left his daughter tied to a chair for days until she died of heat exhaustion. While the disturbing filicide is unverified, it's no myth that 432 Abercorn has stood vacant for much of its 150 years. Renovations have gone unfinished, and in the last year alone the house has changed hands twice. The spirits in the house are some of the most active in the city--take a picture after dark and you may see a glowing orb or a girl in the window, or your camera may mysteriously malfunction.
War, slavery, yellow fever, and murders are plenty of reason for hauntings, but none of these tragedies explain why the South in particular is steeped with spiritual energy and unrest. Tragedy is not the sole inheritance of the Southern States, but perhaps they do offer us more picturesque scenery and a more diverse, and sometimes odd, cast of characters. It comes down to geography and culture, isolation and secrecy. The rural family farm, the dirt back road that leads to an abandoned plantation house, the patriarch that feels his authority slipping--even the infernal heat provides a setting ripe for depravity and the supernatural.
The paradox that drives Southern Gothic literature and gives it so much dark irony--the decay of old Southern aristocracy and the doomed attempt to maintain that façade--is the same which infects our modern landscape. Masters of the genre William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, and Eudora Welty throw into sharp relief the paradox of pretty Southern manners with the stark, often gruesome reality of the post-Civil War South. And while our economy may have improved, we never shook the cultural habit of turning away from or euphemizing any unpleasantness, and we never lost our fascination with Death.
John Berendt was keenly aware of this disconnect while writing his famous exposé. Time and again, he calls attention to family secrets being swept under the rug, policemen looking the other way, newspapers printing cover-ups. Jim Williams himself, the murderer and protagonist, warns John not to be "taken in by the moonlight and magnolias. Things can get very murky." Jim continues with the true story of Judge Carl Espy's son, who was beaten, castrated, and left on his father's front porch by mob members for going out with the head gangster's girl. "The next day, the headline in the paper read FALL FROM PORCH PROVES FATAL." Rather than honor the truth of such a tragedy, the Espy family chose to tell a more socially acceptable story. But when the living attempt to save face, the dead are restless. Their stories, the real injustices that befell them, are untold. Their lives are covered up, paved over, and forgotten, unless they make themselves known.
This article was written for the Fall 2019 issue of Paprika Southern, and deals with the long history of hauntings and myth in the South. Artwork by Ksenia Phillips. For the full printed article, you can purchase the magazine at https://www.paprikasouthern.com/.