The Ghosts of Charleston

Article by Julian T. Buxton III and Edward B. Macy

Charleston abounds with supernatural activity. Perhaps the reason is simple inevitability: its stubborn citizens have lived on this once swampy peninsula for nearly 330 years. Or maybe it can be attributed to the numerous catastrophic blows rained upon the city: war, fire, plague, hurricane, and earthquake.

Even more likely, Charleston’s ghost phenomenon springs from the spirit of the mighty antebellum agricultural society and its abundant lore of wealth, power, beauty, and chivalry, as well as from its equally excessive but lesser acknowledged dark sides.

In Charleston, remnants of glory from antebellum culture shine unabashedly. Mansions of rice lords and shipping merchants whisper loudly to even the most imagination-dulled among us. The ruling elite of this society were the gentlewomen and gentlemen of the Code of Honor, people who at times were bursting at the seams with both rage and guilt. Their riches were paid for in part by the institution of slavery, the dark side, a side which present-day Charleston structures only tacitly acknowledge.

For instance, the wharves along the Cooper River, which once publicly displayed auctions of human commerce and cruelty, have disappeared. Waterfront Park now graces the area where so much injustice tore into the fabric of this town. The ghost of slavery manifests itself more visibly on a quaint cobblestone street called Chalmers, where the Old Slave Mart still stands.
What makes this and so many visions from Charleston’s past so arresting is the tension inherent in the juxtaposition of extremes: the splendor of eighteenth century mansions next to majestic oaks and harbor waters, and the abject horror of the twenty-nine pirate corpses hanging through four hot suns and four humid moons for all the world to witness.The west side of Church Street, from Chalmers to Queen Streets, opens into what is clearly the most ghost infested region in Charleston extant today. Farther south, Church Street originates at the tip of the peninsula among the mansions of South Battery. Across from its entrance lies oak and moss-laden Battery Park, also known as White Point Gardens. It was here, for four days in 1729, that one could not escape the cold stare of twenty-nine pirates from Stede Bonnet’s crew, all hanging for their heinous crimes on the limbs of the majestic oaks. They swung slowly in the wind for four days, turning in different directions, eyes fixed and resolute, burning into the backs of those who preferred to turn away from their gaze.

The pirates had become an extreme problem for Charles Towne. As they would in countless situations to come, the people of this town adopted extreme measures in response. When they were certain other pirates had seen or received word of the punishment meted out to Bonnet’s crew, they cut down the rank pirate corpses and piled them into the plough mud of Vanderhorst Creek (now Water Street). Charlestonians withstood the stench emanating from the rotting flesh, so that terror might strike into the souls of other pirate crews rowing up Vanderhorst Creek on their way into town, and deter them from any further dark ventures into Charleston.

The mansion of Colonel William Washington (cousin of George Washington) graces the west side of the Church Street entrance. This narrow brick-studded road advances through the colonial majesty of homes of rice lords and shipping merchants, then winds past First Baptist (c.1682), the first of several churches, toward Broad Street where towering St. Philip’s Episcopal (c.1680) looms into view.

Drawing nearer to this, Charleston’s single-most haunted center, a nightwalker will often notice the purple lighting splashed in the sky from the Old Slave Mart on Chalmers Street to St. Philip’s and its cemeteries. Speculation concerning the origin of this light spans a wide spectrum of opinion among residents and visitors. Some attribute the purple diffusion to an odd interplay of lighting resulting from reflections off the dark harbor nearby, the spotlights directed at the St. Philip’s steeple and the type of gas lanterns used to illuminate the French Quarter. Most people find this explanation unsatisfactory.

The fact is, this area marks another pocket of Charleston extremes. Within the course of two blocks lie three prominent churches and graveyards, the Old Slave Mart, the Pirate’s Courtyard, the site of the old Planter’s Hotel (now the location of the Dock Street Theatre), and the haunted residence 131 Church Street. With all the past and present spiritual activity taking place in this central plot – transcendent, dark, and in between – most who witness this light say the purple cast sky emanates from supernatural origins.

Far more intriguing are the consistent bizarre happenings witnessed along the west side of Church Street between Chalmers and Queen. Besides the occasional distinctive smell of cheap cologne that hangs in the air about the residence of 131 Church, the only indication of the unusual occurs above the street. Entranced by the charms of Church Street, the wonders of purple skylights, and the yellow lamplight falling onto the sidewalks, a visitor walking toward the giant steeple of St. Philip’s rising from the middle of the street might sense something well before glancing toward the theatre, then up to meet eyes that are not of this world. They are the eyes of a woman apparition, dressed in ornate 1830s garb, who walks and haunts the second floor of the Dock Street Theatre.

In the late 1600s and early 1700s, Church Street was the main street in a town surrounded by great walls and bastions. The people of Charles Towne originally built their city like a medieval fortress for protection from hostile Indians, pirates, and Spanish and French would-be invaders. These fortifications were taken down in 1717 to make room for expansion. With expansion came more of everything, both good and bad.

Charles Towne prided itself on its free-trade economy protected by English mercantile laws. As they do now, the people of Charles Towne also took pride in the city’s freedom of religion (actually written into the “Fundamental Constitution of Carolina” by the English philosopher John Locke). The purpose for this was not strictly humanitarian. Carolina was originally the commercial venture of eight politically influential friends of England’s King Charles II. These eight Lord Proprietors believed that having religious tolerance written into the law of the new town would prove beneficial to the fledgling enterprise’s economy. They were right. Remnants of the explosion of wealth in the 1700s abound to this day. This is yet another of many examples of extremes coexisting in Charleston: the desire for raw material gain openly linked to the humanitarian aspiration of religious freedom.

Church Street came to loudly and lucidly symbolize the wild tension of opposites that developed with Charleston’s social and economic growth. The street graced by three majestic churches, First Baptist at 61 Church, the French Huguenot Church at 136 Church, and St. Philip’s at 142 Church, is the same street where the Planter’s Hotel, (one of the bawdiest hotels in antebellum America) and the popular New Theatre on Dock Street were situated.

Literally across from these places of worship, Charlestonians entertained guests and transients with extravagant meals, gambling, heavy consumption of alcohol and wild parties. Ladies of “ill fame” openly solicited men for business on the sidewalks at night and were welcomed patrons at the Planter’s Hotel. Most of this activity took place within the block between the present day Chalmers Street and Queen Street.

Perhaps it is the continued concentration of extremes that provides the social climate for the proliferation of ghosts within the dwellings and establishments of peninsula Charleston.

Because of the regularity of the occurrences, many residents of haunted homes have come to consider the supernatural activity commonplace. Footsteps are heard stomping up and down stairways at night. Doorknobs turn, doors open and close, and a rush of air follows as if someone is walking through. Plates and other dining ware carefully placed on a table or sideboard, often reappear on an opposite side of the room while a back is turned or no one is watching.

When questioned about the eerie energy looming within, owners connect the activity to the long and rich history of their homes. They recount the lore and rumors mixed with the facts, and suggest these curious happenings could be the result of lingering human drama, contained and held against the normal course of nature. This theory takes into account the decades of human emotion and tribulation absorbed into the homes’ walls over time. Contractors also believe that past energy flowing through the houses is trapped within the walls. Work performed on the houses exacerbates the other world events, releasing the stored energy as what we interpret to be supernatural forces.

Changes in temperature, vibrations, drifting shadows, as well as a variety of -other movements and activity erupt during plaster work and structural repair. Each restoration stirs a rising of sinuous activity left from the past and draws it into the present.

Such rational explanations, however, do not account for the super natural activity reported by guests staying at one of Charleston’s most famous mansions, The Battery Carriage House Inn at 20 South Battery, where one apparition stands apart from the others as a singularly arresting sight. While most Charleston ghosts comport themselves with the refined behavior and appearance of the people and city they inhabit, this wraith is as menacing as he is ugly. He harms no one, yet his countenance is unexpectedly brutal. What makes this ghost so awful is that he has no head.

Visitors report seeing the torso of a man clad in a coarse wool outer garment. This ghost marks his appearances with a guttural moan as though he is in deep pain. At times he hovers at arm’s length over the bed. More often he parades in erect military stature back and forth at the foot of the bed. Although some maintain that he is the remnant of a pirate hanged in the oaks at Battery Park, the preponderance of experience suggests he is the ghost of a Confederate soldier who lost his head and the greater part of his limbs during a munitions explosion accident.

Across the street from 20 South Battery, White Point
Gardens now covers the once dug out fort and Confederate munitions magazine Battery Ramsey. In February 1865, Charleston residents evacuated the city, many taking family and valuables to the capital in Columbia, 120 miles inland, to avoid the wrath and ravage of General William Tecumseht Sherman’s great “March to the Sea”.

In his public role as warrior, Sherman’s regard for Charleston was clearly negative. He bastardized the city’s proper name with terms such as “the hellhole of succession”. Yet, to this day, mystery surrounds Sherman’s decision not to unleash the full hell of his army onto Charleston as a real and symbolic act of revenge toward the city that started this murderous war. The answer to this mystery may lie within the man’s private world where his regard for Charleston held deep paradox. Earlier in his career, Sherman served an assignment at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island. During this period (1842 1845), the city sparkled with wealth and vitality in spite of the stock market crash of 1841. Then as now, Charleston stood alone among America’s cities as an elite visual jewel.

Across the harbor from the fort, the dazzling city lay in the young Sherman’s sights each night. He enjoyed Charleston’s social life and developed friendships with local families. Could the rumor be true that this young soldier had a lover in the city? Or was it the city itself that created a soft place in his heart, as it has for so many who stay here for any length of time? Whatever the explanation might be, the fact remains that Sherman spared Charleston and obliterated Columbia, where so many Charlestonians sought refuge, and where he left little trace of the antebellum life that once flourished there.

After the evacuation of Charleston, Confederates exploded tons of their own munitions along the waterfront at the tip of the peninsula. They worked fast and furious to do whatever it took to keep the weaponry out of the enemy’s hands, believing that Sherman’s approach to the city was imminent.

One prominent artillery piece, a giant Blakely gun from England, sat at what is now the corner of South Battery and East Bay Streets. Upon exploding, a huge fragment of the gun flew into the roof of the Thomas Roper House at 9 East Battery, and lodged into the rafters where it remains today.

Five houses away at 20 South Battery, the soldiers in charge of destroying the remaining munitions took nightly refuge in the carriage house behind the deserted mansion. This dangerous work – great blasts performed in haste may explain the horrible wounds inflicted upon the body of what now exists as a floating headless torso in “Room 8”. The poor soul who sought rest there during his final days of duty returns a disturbed and restless disfigurement in the afterlife.

Not everyone is capable of, or allowed to see ghosts. Sometimes it seems the chance of such an encounter decreases the more you wish for it to happen. To see a ghost, you must strike into its path as it makes one of its inexplicable trips back into our world. We do not profess to know the timing of ghosts. The only thing that can be said with certainty in regard to seeing one is that they often possess an affinity for one certain locale. A ghost will, with some degree of regularity, return to the same place over and over again. What makes Charleston so supernaturally fascinating are the sheer abundance of ghostly characters here and the frequency with which they make their chilling returns.