Charleston ghosts are ready to rattle you

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 17, 2013

“Haunted Charleston,” retold by Sara Pitzer. Morris Book Publishing. $14.95. 208 pp.

Nothing like a bone-chilling night to go with ghost stories from a hot Southern climate.
If you and yours enjoy reading reports of sightings, strange events and things that go bump in the night, pick up “Haunted Charleston,” ghost stories retold by Sara Pitzer.
Charleston has plenty of sources for ghosts — the city was founded in 1670. By now, the number of ghosts may outnumber the living residents.
Charleston saw, in its harbor, the first shot of the Civil War at Fort Sumter. Charleston was a big port, meaning thousands of enslaved people passed through or worked in the city. Charleston is famous for its Old Exchange, site of slave sales, and its dank and dreadful dungeon. The city jail was an equally horrifying place, plagued by pestilence and inhumane conditions.
Soldiers’ bodies were returned to Charleston for burial, romances of mismatched social classes ended in tragedy, barroom brawls left dead men in the streets. There have been earthquakes and fires and hurricanes, oh, my.
Charleston is famous, in part, for its downtown churches and graveyards. It must be pretty hard to get any rest in such a busy place, so the spirits of the dead wander freely in and around historic homes and inns, in restaurants and marketplaces and churchyards and just about everywhere.
As Pitzer points out, some business owners like the ambience of hauntings. They use their ghosts-in-residence in marketing material for their gracious hotels and cozy bed-and-breakfast inns. Others would rather be caught … er … dead rather than tell the stories of what haints them.
Ghost stories from the old days were passed on by word-of-mouth, told by one astonished witness to friends and family, then it didn’t take long for books to spring up like the undead; and soon, tours of ghostly places followed. The Internet, YouTube and all the rest spread the stories even further.
And now, the immense interest in the paranormal, which has created many a new business, makes the ghouls and ghosts even more accessible, with odd shapes showing up in photos, strange sounds on recordings, weird readings on fancy monitors.
Pitzer divides her latest book into neat sections — Hospitality Haunts, Grave Haunts, Scary Places, Heard But Not Seen, Seen but Not Heard, Plantation Haunts and Gullah Legends. Another special feature of Charleston ghosts is that some of them are part of Gullah legend brought from Africa.
Pitzer has also provided several appendices, chock full of bibliography, information on how to visit the places she’s mentioned and full references to all the publications she read to compile the book. Once you finish reading a spooky story, you can flip to the back and keep on the trail, learning even more. She even has tips for ghost hunting and names of paranormal investigators. Of course, the book would not be complete without its list of available ghost tours. You might end up on your own ghost tour if you poke around too much.
Many of Charleston’s ghosts are lovers separated by war or class. Soldiers were lost while their fiancees pined for them in an old home that now serves as public lodging. Men who lost the loves of their lives peer in windows to seek their beloved. Those stories make you feel sorry for the poor soul trapped in a neverending loop. Then there are the noisy, bumpy, opinionated ghosts.
George is believed to be a 9-year-old slave who lost his parents when their owner sold them. No one really knows what happened to George, if he remained a slave at the house his parents served, if he ran away, if he was sold. George seems to hang around at the 1837 Bed and Breakfast on Wentworth Street. He likes to play jokes on the guests, but when a staff member tells him sternly, “Stop!” George generally quiets down.
In “The Poltergeist Pranksters,” Pitzer recounts the haunting of a dorm at the College of Charleston, where children are heard singing. It’s believed they were victims of the Spanish Flu in 1918 and never realized they were dead.
Touring the grand old houses is a highlight of any visit, but in broad daylight, it’s sometimes hard to imagine that unsettled spirits roam the beautifully decorated rooms. At the Aiken-Rhett House, two architects working on the building reported hearing a loud commotion and strong wind blowing in the ballroom. They switched on their flashlights (the house was never electrified) and headed upstairs, where the door to the ballroom was rattling. As soon as one man touched the knob, the sound ceased. When they went in, they saw nothing — until an image of an old woman with long, wind-blown hair appeared in a mirror. A horrified expression, mouth agape, twisted her face. It looked as if she were screaming, but they heard not a single sound.
That’s why this book is ideal for those windy, cold nights when you’re cuddled up to the fireplace. Just don’t look over your shoulder.

Sara Pitzer is a freelance writer and book author.