Traveling to Myrtle Beach from our home in Greensboro was always a magical journey for me when I was a little boy. And one of the first things I looked for once we started getting close to the coast were the big oak trees that I called “grandfather oaks”. I called them that because of the “beards” that hung from their branches.
Go to any coastal town in the South and you’ll see huge, centuries-old live oaks with limbs covered in Spanish moss. From Myrtle Beach down through Charleston and Savannah, and on into Florida, the huge trees are the last living elements of the Antebellum South. These old sentinels even predate most of the haints that roam through the southern countryside, or rattle chains in the attics of our homes.
This brings us to the story of Alice Riley and her connection to Spanish moss. Alice and her husband Richard worked as servants for a wealthy Savannah businessman named William Wise in the early 1700’s. Mr. Wise was tyrant, abusive to both Alice and her husband until one day Mr. Wise was found strangled to death in his home. The day was January 19, 1735.
Alice and her husband were the prime suspects. They fled Savannah but were caught hiding out on a nearby island and promptly hauled back to the courthouse where they received a speedy trial and an even speedier sentence – both were sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead.
Richard was the first to go to the gallows in Wright Square in downtown Savannah. Alice, being pregnant at the time, was allowed to give birth before taking her trip to the gallows, the logic being that only she had received the death sentence, not her child. Alice used her last breath to proclaim her innocence but it was to no avail. The hangman carried out the sentence and her body hung in Wright Square for three days before it was taken down and buried.
The ghost of Alice Riley is said to haunt Wright Square. She sometimes appears on the evening of January 19 and roams the square for three days searching for her lost child. To this day no one knows if she was really innocent or not. But one thing that is known is that trees of Wright Square, unlike all the other trees in Savannah, bear no Spanish moss.
As legend has it, Spanish moss will not grow where innocent blood has been spilled.