Down south, I went looking for Charleston haints and other cemetery ghosts. Haints are just southern ghosts. In the south, there are ghosts on every corner, so it’s a good place for storytelling.
In Charleston, there are the ghostly soldiers still dueling in the street, an apparition of the proprietress still in the restaurant bathroom, and a library patron who haunts his old books. There’s a great story about a famous poet, another about a female serial killer, and even one about a tragic mother. …. I’d venture to guess there isn’t a location in Charleston that doesn’t have a ghost.
And I do love a good ghost story. While visiting, I took a late-night ghost walk, a carriage ride, and a few other excursions. I talked to people in shops, when I ate in restaurants and everywhere I went. Ghost tour or not, I heard about ghosts in some way. There are many things I love about the south (the food ya’ll), but their passion for keeping stories alive is something to be admired.
Here are a few ghost stories I learned about while visiting Charleston.
GULLAH GEECHEE CHARLESTON HAINTS
Like in Savannah and other southern places I’ve visited, the ubiquitous “haint” blue paint adorned many porch ceilings, roofs, and shutters. It’s a dead giveaway that a city has a ghost fetish, and I saw a lot of haint blue in Charleston.
The Gullah Geechee people have fables of “boo hags” who take off their skin before entering a building or “riding” its victim. They say people experience real pain from the hags that can only be cured with salt and pepper. I think it’s a food thing I still don’t understand, but I’m learning.
The Gullah Geechee are descendants of African enslaved people from North Carolina to Savannah, Georgia region.
Some ha’ants or haints are spirits that enter homes at night. But, Charleston haints have weaknesses. They can’t travel over water and people can easily trick them – with blue paint. That’s why you’ll see doors, roofs, and shutters painted “haint” blue to look like water or the sky. In Charleston, this practice is attributed to the Gullah Geechee people.
They used to source the haint color from the indigo plant crops they worked, mixed with buttermilk and lime. It’s supposed to keep the haints away.
THE GHOST OF LOVE: ANNABEL LEE
One of my favorite ghost stories is about Annabel Lee – the name may sound familiar? It’s also the title of an Edgar Allan Poe poem. I’ve heard the story told various ways while in Charleston, but it’s delightful and horrible either way. Generally, the story goes that Annabel Lee Ravenel was the daughter of one of the wealthiest families – The Ravenels. Their name is still all over the city and one very big and famous bridge. They say she had an “unworthy” lover, forbidden by her father. It’s speculated that, Poe, who was stationed in the army in Charleston at that time under an assumed name, may have been the unfit lover.
It’s said the father went to extreme lengths to keep the lovers apart, even having Poe garrisoned so he couldn’t leave the base and see his daughter. This may have inadvertently saved his life – because the girl died soon after from one of the plague diseases of the day. Spiteful to the end, her father buried her in an unmarked grave in the Unitarian Graveyard so her lover couldn’t find her. Harsh.
I don’t know that timeline of Poe’s life lines up, so take it with a grain of salt, but it’s a fun ghost story.
Annabel Lee is the last poem Poe published. He hadn’t been in the Army in more than 20 years by then. It reads in part:
And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsman came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.
Now, people say they sometimes see the ghost of Annabel Lee mournfully haunting the graveyard clad in the unworn wedding dress for a planned elopement.
THE UNITARIAN GRAVEYARD
I went to the cemetery to look for Annabel, of course. The black wrought iron gate leads into a narrow – maybe 12-foot-wide alley passageway filled with tropical plants and flowers in between buildings. Nobody was in the passageway. The closeness of the buildings and the density of the plants muffled sound until the passage opened into the graveyard and a few old grey standing stones tucked in between branches and hedges and moss-covered crepe myrtle trees.
As I neared the stones, I heard a buzzing and saw millions of bees covering the ground as I drew closer. They hummed and swarmed about everything. There were so many that it was impossible to step on anything without first waving off the bees, so I didn’t crush them. I stepped carefully on the paving stones that led the way through the mossy yard filled with camellia and azalea flowers.
Undaunted, I walked around slowly and carefully, reading the old memorials, admiring the romantic fall of moss over bright flowers and old stones. At some point, near the back of the yard, the howling of the bees overcame my senses and a tremendous buzzing pulsed to the forefront. Realizing I was perhaps foolish being here alone with so many bees, I left.
THE FIRST FEMALE SERIAL KILLER: LAVINIA FISHER
The other popular ghost story is Lavinia Fisher. This one gets told a dozen different ways too, but it has the impact of being a ghost story and a serial killer story. It’s said she and her husband, John, had a house on the edge of town where they affiliated with a group of highwaymen. There, many people were robbed and disappeared, and apparently, murdered. Eventually, the couple was caught and held in the old jail for a year before being hung.
After she was hung and buried in a potter’s field behind the jail in Charleston, reports of her ghost there became regular. Then there were reports about her body being moved and her ghost being seen in different areas of the city, but the tour guides all tell different stories depending on the route they like to walk, so it’s hard to know the truth, and the records aren’t very good.
THE POOGAN’S PORCH GHOSTS
A lot of the businesses and restaurants in Charleston used to be homes. Poogan’s Porch is now a popular southern restaurant, but around 1900, it used to be lived in by Zoe St. Amand and her sister, Elizabeth. After Elizabeth died, Zoe, who often wore long, black dresses and round glasses, was unhappy and died sad and alone, missing her sister. It seems she never got over the happy time they spent together in that house because after Zoe died, she seemed to have gone back there to stay. Many restaurant visitors have reported seeing an old woman in a long black dress and glasses in the upstairs bathroom, and hotel guests across the street have seen an old woman in black in the upstairs windows.
And of course, there’s Poogan, the old pooch who the porch is named after, whom diners say they can still feel rub against their legs sometimes. He’s probably everyone’s favorite of the Charleston haints.
CHARLESTON LIBRARY GHOST
If I’m ever a ghost, this is absolutely the type of ghost I will be. It’s my favorite of all the Charleston haints. At the Charleston Library Society on King Street, anybody can pay to become a member regardless of residency – in life or death, apparently.
William Godber Hinson was a major contributor to the Charleston Library Society’s collection. He was a planter and Confederate soldier who left more than 2,000 books to the library. Still, he found them hard to part with because several people have seen the old chap. They say he’s in a heavy black coat, top hat, and a full bead rummaging through the books. The staff said they believe he’s also responsible for running the elevator at odd hours when nobody else is around. So basically, he found a way to keep all his books where he can always peruse them at his leisure – genius.
GRAVE SYMBOLS AND MEANINGS OF THE CHARLESTON HAINTS
On Meeting Street, the Circular Congregational Church has Charleston’s oldest graveyard and grave dating to 1680. Plus, some of the stones are still perfectly readable and obviously hand carved. People etched images like hourglasses, downed trees, sunken ships, and other symbols of lives cut short. This was the colonial times when things like yellow fever, malaria and plagues ran rampant. Speaking of plague and grave symbols, people have marked many of the graves with skulls and crossbones. Because grave robbing was a widespread practice, that symbol meant the deceased died of communicable disease – so don’t dig them up! Fair warning.
SUE HOWARD AND HER LOST BABY
St. Philips Church and graveyard are where Sue Howard and her baby rest, or don’t. People say these sad Charleston haints can sometimes still be seen crying over the grave where mother was buried with child. The child died at birth and the mother six days later. More than 100 years later, women are still overcome with emotion and cry at the grave. There have been pictures that appear to show a ghostly woman weeping over the grave. The overcome women get a distinct impression that she “buried her heart” in this place.
A sign on the gate outside the graveyard says, “The only ghost at St. Phillip’s is the Holy Ghost.” Touché.
These were just a few of the ghost stories and cemetery tales I heard while visiting Charleston. There are dozens more. In a southern city this old that has seen so much war and sickness, it’s endless. I barely touched on the jail; I didn’t even mention the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon, powder magazine, the Pink House, Fort Sumpter, or many others. But if you like ghost stories, Charleston is a great place to find them.
My last tour ended late, and it was dark when I left St. Philips and nearing midnight; I walked alone to my van. I passed graveyard after graveyard and tried not to linger as I approached the witching hour. There was laughter in the distance, and church bells tolled. I walked rapidly across the cobblestones, the Charleston haints with me all the way.
What's your best ghost story?