Category Archives: Southern Ghost Stories

Cities of the Dead

There is no shortage of spooky graveyards in America, especially in the South, and when it comes to burying the dead no city does it better, and with more extravagance, than New Orleans.

High and dry, just the way the dead like it.

Burying the dead in a city that is below sea level and prone to flooding is no easy task. The dead prefer to stay dry and if not kept that way  will make their displeasure known to the living, usually in the middle of the night.
Laid out just like miniature cities, with narrow streets and street signs, a New Orleans graveyard can be an unnerving thing to walk through. It is easy to get lost in the maze of crypts.

Walk through any graveyard in New Orleans and you will feel the presence of the dead. Many corpses are entombed at eye-level so when you feel the urge to peek through a crack in an older crypt, be prepared for what might be looking back at you. In some  crypts, coffins are optional.

Gifts laid at the foot of Voodoo queen Marie Laveau’s crypt

Graveyards in the Big Easy, the popular nickname for New Orleans, harbor their fair share of restless ghosts. The oldest cemetery, Saint Louis No. 1, holds the tomb of Marie Laveau, the famous Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. Due to vandalism, only visitors escorted by licensed tour guides may visit the cemetery. Legend has it that if a visitor marks Marie’s grave with three X’s and turns around three times while shouting their wish, Marie will grant the wish. As you can imagine, this has led to her crypt being covered with X’s.

Cities of the Dead also harbor other things as well. Like the old saying goes, it’s not the dead you have to worry about, it’s the living that will kill you. The high walls that surround most of these graveyards harbor a spooky feeling of isolation, which also leads to unsafe conditions for visitors. On a recent visit to New Orleans, my wife and I were having dinner in the French Quarter when the waiter cautioned us not wander too far inside one of the nearby walled “cities of the dead”. He told us that if we did go inside to only do so in the daylight. Once inside, he warned that we stay close to each other and not stray too far from the entrance. He told us with a serious look on his face that if the ghosts didn’t get us, something else would.

The above ground crypts used in the cities of the dead in New Orleans serve as slow-baking crematoriums. The bodies rapidly decompose in the sweltering heat, quickly breaking down into nothing but bones. Lime poured on the body will speed up the process and sweet smelling plants placed around the tombs can help mask the odor of decomposition. One year later after the flesh is gone, the family can open the tomb and have the bones pushed to the rear where they fall into a deep crevice in the back of the tomb. This allows reuse of tomb for other family members over multiple generations. This explains why many of the tombs are so old. Some of these old tombs hold piles of bones that date back to the founding of the city.

Tombs for those of lesser means.

If you ever find yourself in the Big Easy, visit one of the cities of the dead. There is nothing quite like a walk among the corpses of Voodoo queens, witches, and just plain old normal folk to remind you of just how short life is, and how extravagant the hereafter can be.

The Ghost of Virginia Dare

In 1587 an expedition directed by Sir Walter Raleigh and led by John White  attempted to establish the first permanent English settlement in the New World. Originally bound for the Chesapeake Bay, the settlers landed on Roanoke Island, NC where they set about the hard and laborious task of finding a way to survive. Life was hard.

John White was appointed governor of the colony but left soon after to return to England to gather additional supplies. Among the 115 colonists he left behind was his infant granddaughter Virginia Dare, the first child born to English parents in the New World.

Due to England’s war with Spain, White was not able to return to Roanoke Island until 1590. When he arrived he found that all of the colonists had disappeared. The only trace of evidence that he found was the word “Croatoan” carved in the trunk of a tree.

Legend has it that the colonists assimilated into the local Croatan tribe of Native Americans that inhabited the island. Virginia Dare grew into a beautiful young woman who attracted the attention of Okisko and Chico, two prominent warriors of the tribe.

But Virginia only had eyes for Okisko, and when she rejected the advances of Chico it is said that he grew angry and vowed that if he could not have Virginia then no one could have her. Borrowing from the old adage “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”, which apparently could be extended to male warriors of the day, Chico set about with his plan to deny Okisko the love of his beautiful maiden.

A depiction of Virginia Dare

Enlisting the help of one of the sorcerers of the tribe, Chico cast a spell on Virginia that turned her into a white doe. When Okisko saw this his heart was broken and he immediately began searching for a way to reverse the spell that had been cast on Virginia. Orisko had a sorcerer friend as well who advised him to make an arrowhead out of Mother of Pearl and to then shoot the doe through the heart with it. The sorcerer convinced Orisko that the special arrowhead would instantly reverse the curse and return Virginia to human form.

Enter Wanchese, another chieftain in the tribe. Unaware of the true identity of the white doe, Wanchese devised a plan kill the doe in an effort to showcase his hunting skills. Wanchese knew that an animal with such an unusual appearance would require a special arrowhead, so he fashioned one out of pure silver for the task.

On the day of the hunt, Okisko and Wanchese spotted the white doe and let loose their arrows at precisely the same instant. Both arrows found their mark and pierced the heart of the doe. Just as Okisko’s sorcerer had promised, the Mother of Pearl arrowhead transformed the animal back to his beloved Virginia Dare. But the silver arrow from Wanchese took her life as soon as she changed back to human form.

While no traces of the Lost Colony have ever been found, legend has it that the ghost of one of the colonists can still be seen on Roanoke island. The ghost of Virginia Dare is said to wander the woods of the island in the form of a white doe, searching in vain for her lost love Orisko.

The Ghost of Alice Riley and the Legend of Spanish Moss

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.

Wright Square in Savannah, Georgia

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.

The Surrency Ghosts

One of the most famous hauntings in the history of the South occurred in the early 1870’s in the town of Surrency, a small hamlet located about sixty miles southwest of Savannah, Georgia.

The Surrency Family

Allen Surrency, founder of the town, built his family a large, two-story farmhouse near the railroad tracks and set up his household. But not long after moving in it became horrifyingly apparent to the family that they were not alone in the house. Things started to happen, strange things, and before long the family realized their house was nothing more than a den of angry, restless spirits.

It was a violent haunting witnessed by every member of the family. No one was spared the rage of the ghost, or ghosts that inhabited the house. Windows slammed shut, doors opened and closed and the clock on the wall spun wildly. Silverware flew from the drawers, along with pots, pans, and anything else lying around the house. Wailing voices and angry screams pierced the night while the family tried in vain to sleep. Boots worn by invisible feet walked down the darkened hallway outside the bedrooms.

What makes the Surrency haunting so unique is that it was one of the most verified hauntings in American history. Word traveled across the county about the small town and its haunted house, and visitors came from all over to witness the haunting firsthand. Few were disappointed as the Surrency ghosts were anything but shy.

The haunting went on for several years until one night, after his son was chased down the hall by a floating andiron wielded by unseen hands, Allen decided enough was enough and moved his family out of the house. But the ghosts followed the family to their new home.

Strangely enough, the Surrency haunting ended when Allen Surrency died in 1877. Were the ghosts finally satisfied that they had their man, or was it a coincidence? Rumors spread that Allen had dabbling in the dark religion, or had committed some other heinous sin that warranted the haunting. No one knows for sure.

Few people talk of the Surrency ghosts anymore. All the witnesses to the haunting have long since passed and the story has almost been lost to time.  The town is still there, located where highways 341 and 121 cross but Allen’s house is long gone, having burned to the ground in 1925.

The Tar River Ghost

The Tar River flows into the Pamlico Sound after crossing much of the northeast part of North Carolina. The river meanders through the fields and small towns on its way to the Sound and was once a major shipping route for tar-laden barges. And as it goes with just about everything in the South, the Tar River is said to be haunted.

During the Revolutionary War, British soldiers captured and killed an Irish patriot fighting  against British rule. It is said that the soldiers shot the patriot on the banks of the Tar River and then forced him into the water near the now defunct port village of Old Sparta. As the water turned red with his blood, the patriot swore to the soldiers that he would have his revenge on them, and that they would each be visited by a Banshee that would foretell their deaths.

A Banshee from Irish Folklore

True to the patriot’s word all three of the British soldiers were soon visited by a female apparition not long after that fateful night on the banks of the river. It is said that the soldiers were awakened by the sorrowful wailing of the Banshee who then told them that they would all die in battle within a fortnight. Not long after, the soldiers were all shot and killed in a skirmish with North Carolina militiamen near the town of New Bern.

Legend has it that the Banshee did not rest after the deaths of the British soldiers. To this day, anyone unlucky enough to wade into the water where the patriot died over two hundred years ago will be visited by the Banshee, who will wail her sorrowful moan into the night and foretell their deaths.

The Child Ghost of Cold Harbor

Most Civil War battlefields are haunted by the restless souls of fallen soldiers. And of all the battles of the war, Cold Harbor ranks as one of the bloodiest. In less than thirty minutes, Grant lost over 7000 troops at the hands of Lee’s Army of Virginia, a loss that would haunt him for the rest of his life.

A Cold Harbor burial detail.

But of all the restless souls that wander this historic battlefield, both Union and Confederate, one ghost stands out from the rest. She is known as The Child Ghost of Cold Harbor.

Visitors to Cold Harbor, located in Mechanicsburg, Virginia, often remark of hearing phantom cannon fire, screams of wounded men, and calls from commanders still leading their men into a battle that occurred over 150 years ago. Some visitors even say they can smell smoke from the cannons and hear the distant hoof beats of charging cavalry.

And they also talk of seeing the ghost of a little girl in a white dress and bonnet wandering through meadows and graveyards that border the battlefield, or peering at them from the windows of the Garthright House, a historic home that sits on the edge of the Cold Harbor battlefield.

The Garthright House as it appears today.

The Garthright House was once used as a field hospital for wounded troops. It’s rumored that the little girl, thought to be the daughter of a local gravedigger, fell to her death from one of the windows as the battle raged around her in the surrounding fields.

Most visitors understand the presence of the souls of Civil War dead when they visit one of the battlefields. The Civil War was a violent, horrible conflict that took the lives of hundreds of thousands of men. But the Child Ghost of Cold Harbor reminds us that children often perished, sometimes in great numbers, during the four years of the war.

And sometimes the ghosts of these children stay behind, a sorrowful reminder of the terrible price of war.

Our fascination with haunted dolls

Of all the ghosts, ghouls and goblins that grace the pages of horror novels, the haunted doll is probably responsible for more sleepless
nights among readers than any other object. They haunt our dreams, our closets, our attics and even the basement. There probably isn’t a single house in America that doesn’t have at least one old doll stuffed away in a box or sitting on a shelf in a closet, its eyes staring blankly into the darkness.

When I was little I was sure there was a monster living under my bed. It was so real that I even thought I could hear it breathing in the middle of the night. When I finally worked up the courage to look I found out, to my relief, that there was nothing there. But almost every closet in my house had some sort of old doll sitting on the top shelf. It seemed that my mother and grandmother never met a doll they didn’t like and felt the need to give all of them a home. Some of the dolls had hand-made dresses, long hair and glass eyes. And that’s what always did it for me – the eyes.  Nothing is more frightening to an eight year old kid than the eyes of a doll staring back at him from a dark closet.

Photo by Heidi Sue Hittle

Who hasn’t climbed into the attic in search of a box of junk only to find a creepy doll sitting in the corner? My wife still talks about when she was a little girl and her mother sent her to the attic to get the box of Christmas decorations for their tree. Going into the attic was bad enough, but what she saw when she got there scared the living daylights out of her. When she clicked on the attic light the first thing she saw was one of her older sister’s dolls sitting on top of a box just a few feet away. She swears to this day that the doll’s head moved when she turned on the light. At that instant she forgot all about the box of decorations and climbed as fast as she could back down the ladder, never to go in the attic again. When she told her mother about it she only replied, “did you put it back in the box?” What..? Put it back in the box? Exactly how did it get out of the box in the first place?

Photo by Heidi Sue Hittle

Ghosts in the house are one thing. Most of us have at least one dead relative wandering around the house who refuses to move on to the hereafter. Sometimes they make noises in the middle of the night but we just dismiss it. But a doll standing in the doorway of your bedroom late at night, or one sitting on a dresser that turns its head when you walk into the room is the stuff of nightmares. Horror novelists know this, and waste no time exploiting our fear of haunted dolls, often portraying them as nothing more than receptacles of the souls of the dead.

So the next time you’re rummaging around in the attic or in the closet of the back bedroom and you come across a creepy doll, just throw it away. I dare you. Just remember, throwing it away might not do any good. The doll may just return later that night to stand by the foot of your bed, its eyes aglow with the anger of being tossed aside.

The Bedside Ghost of Edenton, NC

Nestled on the banks of the Albemarle Sound in a remote part of eastern North Carolina lies the small town of Edenton. Incorporated in 1722, Edenton was the first capital of colonial North Carolina and as such has a rich history dating back to its early days as a maritime seaport of pre-Revolutionary War America.

old tombstonesGiven the age of some of the historical homes and buildings in Edenton, not to mention that there are graveyards with graves dating to the early 1700’s, its not hard to believe, in fact, it’s almost expected that Edenton is haunted by the restless souls of its past.

The Cupola House in 1920

On a recent visit to the town with my wife we had the opportunity to see firsthand evidence of the presence of one of Edenton’s many colonial ghosts.

Edenton has several very old homes that have been painstakingly restored to their previous glory. One of these is the Cupola House. Built in 1758 and occupied for 141 years by the Dickinson Family, the Cupola House now stands empty, and can be toured by appointment.

The house as it stands today.

When my wife and I toured the house on a guided tour, we found out, along with the rest of our group, that we were not necessarily the only people in the house.

While taking us through the Cupola House, our tour guide rather nonchalantly pointed to the bed in one of the upstairs bedrooms and explained that a ghost routinely sits at the foot of the bed. On the edge of the bed we could see an indentation in the mattress. It looked exactly like what one would expect to see if someone had been sitting at the foot of the bed.

IMG_2806Keep in mind that the beds in the house have period-correct goose feather mattresses covered with handmade quilts. They wrinkle easily and the mattresses, which are basically just big bags of feathers, do not recover easily from being sat down on like today’s mattresses.

IMG_2807Our guide explained that no matter what anyone does to the mattress and quilt during the day that the indentation will always return by the next morning. There are several volunteers that routinely unlock the house and dust the furniture and they all report the same thing – when they clean the house and smooth out the quilt on the bed, the indentation always returns once the house is locked up and left for the night.

It is believed that a dying child once occupied the bedroom, and that the ghost of the child’s mother now returns to sit at the edge of the bed to grieve. It is believed that it is her ghost that causes the indentation in the sheets. None of the other beds in the house are affected by this bedside ghost.

So if you’re in the mood to stroll the sidewalks of a quaint little town full of history, I highly recommend a visit to Edenton. You can take a boat ride along the historic shoreline of the town, as well as a trolley ride through the tree-lined streets. And don’t forget to take the walking tour, which includes a visit to the Cupola House where you will be able to see the evidence of the bedside ghost of Edenton with your own eyes.

A Strange Haunting on Edisto Island

The locals tell a strange ghost story down on Edisto Island, SC. It is one of the most horrifying and heartbreaking tales you will ever hear. It is the story of the ghost of Julia Legare.

The Legare family owned a plantation on Edisto Island in the time before the Civil War. Their family mausoleum is located on the grounds of the Edisto Island Presbyterian Church, built in 1831. The Church is still active, and the mausoleum still attracts visitors to this day, over 150 years since the night that poor little Julia Legare was laid to rest.

Or, so they thought she was laid to rest.

In those days it was common for families to lose children to illnesses that today are easily cured. And the rest of the not-so-modern medicine of the day also left a lot to be desired, such as the ability to tell whether or not a person was dead or just in a deep coma. Turns out it was the latter for little Julia Legare.

A victim of Diphtheria, Julia was pronounced dead by the physician brought in by the family. No heartbeat or breathing could be detected and due to the primitive level of mortuary science practiced during that era, with no embalming or other form of preservation possible, her thought-to-be dead body was rushed to interment in the family mausoleum. The family paid their respects and with heavy hearts sealed and locked the door of the mausoleum.

Years later when Julia’s older brother was killed in the Civil War, the family once again had to open the mausoleum. What they found horrified them.

Lying on the floor of the mausoleum just inside the door were the crumpled remains of little Julia. Only bones and tattered clothing remained. Claw marks could be seen on the inside of the door and on the walls and floor where Julia had tried in vain to escape after coming out of her Diphtheria-induced coma.

The family, now more consumed with grief than ever, placed Julia’s brother in the mausoleum, gathered up Julia’s remains, reinterred them next to her brother and then resealed the mausoleum.

And then the hauntings began.

When the family returned shortly after resealing the mausoleum, they found the door had been reopened. They closed and locked the door only to return several days later to find that it had once again been reopened.

Distraught and confused, the family then had the door removed and replaced with a heavy stone slab. But that too was found pushed to the side several days later. After a few more attempts, the family gave up and left the door to the mausoleum open. And that is how it remains today. Since the discovery of poor little Julia’s fate, no attempt to keep the mausoleum door sealed shut has been successful.

The Edisto Island Presbyterian Church. Photo by Charles N. Bayless

So if you’re ever down on Edisto Island just south of Charleston, stop by the cemetery at the Edisto Island Presbyterian Church. There you will find the Legare family mausoleum. And just inside the open door you will see the claw marks left by the hands of a little girl unwittingly entombed long before her time, whose ghost still stands a lonely vigil to ensure that the door to her family’s mausoleum remains open so that no one will suffer the same fate as she did over 150 years ago.

The Brown Mountain Lights

Near the town of Morganton, NC in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains lies Brown Mountain. As far back as the early 1900’s, people have observed a ghostly phenomenon in the skies around the mountain that has become known as the Brown Mountain Lights.

Ghost hunting is a popular sport among paranormal enthusiasts, especially in the South. Many people pay good money to take tours of haunted houses or spooky graveyards in the hopes of seeing the elusive ghosts that haunt them. Down South, there is a better chance to see a ghost since Southern land is known to be haunted by the restless souls of its tortured past. But even though the ghosts are there, they often do not want to be seen and many paying visitors often walk away disappointed. Not so for the Brown Mountain Lights. Unlike most ghosts they are anything but shy.

The Brown Mountain Lights are so dependable that visitors come from miles around to see them. The best time is reportedly in the fall months from September to December. The ghostly lightshow is so dependable that overlooks have been constructed on the highways around Brown Mountain to give visitors a place to stop and see the lights. Mile post 310 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Brown Mountain Overlook on NC Highway 181, and one of the best vantage points, Wiseman’s View near Linville Falls are some of the best places to see the lights.

To this day, no one has been able to figure out exactly what causes the Brown Mountain Lights. The lights have been blamed on the reflections of locomotive headlamps, campfires, moonshiners, UFO’s and all other manner of physical anomalies. The US Geological Survey has conducted investigations into the lights but has never found a plausible reason for them to exist.

Legend has it that two warring Indian tribes fought on Brown Mountain hundreds of years ago and that the lights are said to be the ghosts of the wives of the warriors that died in the battle. But as with most ghost legends, it depends on who you ask as to how the story goes.

One thing is for certain when it comes to the Brown Mountain Lights – most efforts to see them will be rewarded. So if you’re ever in the area near the mountain, stop by one of the many overlooks on a dark, clear night.

What you will see just might surprise you.