Rhythm Night Club Memorial Museum 5 St. Catherine Street Natchez, Mississippi
One of my favorite books as a kid was Jay Robert Nash’s Darkest Hours: A Narrative Encyclopedia of Worldwide Disasters from Ancient Times to the Present. Not only providing the stories of hundreds of disasters, the book includes are photographs from the scenes, including some that are quite graphic. One of those photographs I remember clearly is from the 1940 fire at the Rhythm Night Club in Natchez. The photograph shows bodies of many of the African-American club goers laid out. These nicely dressed people are covered with soot with some almost frozen in dance-like attitudes.
As I’m reading through my blogs tonight, I came across an entry from Natchez Ghosts: The Devil’s Punchbowl, the official blog of the Natchez Area Paranormal Society regarding this recently opened museum. The museum is located on the site of the night club and serves as a memorial to this fire that claimed around 207 lives (there are discrepancies in the actual number) and affected many more.
Installed in a ramshackle wood frame building, the Rhythm Night Club was a swinging place on this spring evening, April 23, 1940. Walter Barnes and His Royal Creolians, a noted band from Chicago, was playing to a packed house of nearly 700. From the ceiling, Spanish moss was hung as a decoration; moss that had been sprayed with a petroleum-based insecticide called Flit to kill the insects that lived within it. A fire broke out near the front door of the club and quickly spread through the highly flammable moss. As club goers rushed to the windows and doors, they found most of them boarded up. Among those killed were Walter Barnes, the bandleader, and most of his band. While the fire destroyed much of a generation of African-Americans in the region, it did lead to some of the myriad fire regulations that save many lives today.
Opening last year, the Rhythm Night Club Memorial Museum, seeks to tell the story of this tragedy as well as memorialize the site. The blog entry on Natchez Ghosts mentions that one of the founders has reported paranormal activity at the site. This activity includes the sounds of voices, music and doors opening and closing. He has also found photographs apparently removed from the walls and then laid on the floor at interesting angles. It should be noted that there are many sites related to similar tragedies with paranormal activity such as the site of the Eastland disaster (1915) in Chicago, the Winecoff Hotel fire (1946) in Atlanta and Ground Zero (2011) in New York City.
The blog entry also mentions that NAPS is ramping up to investigate the location in the very near future. I look forward to seeing their evidence.
Goodbye, Goodbye, Fare you well, goodbye! I’m just gonna let all you people know What happened in that Natchez fire. — Gene Gilmore, “The Natchez Fire,” one of a number of jazz and blues songs written to memorialize the fire. See the YouTube video for a recording of the song with photographs from the fire.
An incident occurred in 1862 as Confederate troops under General Stonewall Jackson marched through the picturesque Western Maryland town of Frederick September 10th. Union sympathizers in Frederick (Maryland never seceded from the Union) hung out American flags to antagonize Confederates moving through town. Seven days later, those troops would be embroiled in heavy fighting in neighboring Washington County near Sharpsburg, a battle that would forever be named by the lowly stream running through the idyllic pastures where the battle was fought, Antietam.
Among the sympathizers that hung out their flags was 96 year old Barbara Fritchie. Her actions that day became part of the oral tradition of Union troops and two years later were immortalized in a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier, actions that became a hallmark of patriotism that is still celebrated. The poem became a Union rallying cry towards the end of the brutal Civil War that raged over the bucolic farmlands of Western Maryland.
The Ballad of Barbara Frietchie
By John Greenleaf Whittier, 1864
Up from the meadows rich with corn,
Clear in the cool September morn,
The clustered spires of Frederick stand
Green-walled by the hills of Maryland.
Round about them orchards sweep, Apple and peach tree fruited deep,
Fair as the garden of the Lord
To the eyes of the famished rebel horde,
On that pleasant morn of the early fall
When Lee marched over the mountain-wall;
Over the mountains winding down,
Horse and foot, into Frederick town.
Forty flags with their silver stars,
Forty flags with their crimson bars,
Flapped in the morning wind: the sun
Of noon looked down, and saw not one.
Up rose old Barbara Frietchie then,
Bowed with her fourscore years and ten;
Bravest of all in Frederick town,
She took up the flag the men hauled down;
In her attic window the staff she set,
To show that one heart was loyal yet,
Up the street came the rebel tread,
Stonewall Jackson riding ahead.
Under his slouched hat left and right
He glanced; the old flag met his sight.
‘Halt!’ – the dust-brown ranks stood fast.
‘Fire!’ – out blazed the rifle-blast.
It shivered the window, pane and sash;
It rent the banner with seam and gash.
Quick, as it fell, from the broken staff
Dame Barbara snatched the silken scarf.
She leaned far out on the window-sill,
And shook it forth with a royal will.
‘Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country’s flag,’ she said.
A shade of sadness, a blush of shame,
Over the face of the leader came;
The nobler nature within him stirred
To life at that woman’s deed and word;
‘Who touches a hair of yon gray head
Dies like a dog! March on! he said.
All day long through Frederick street
Sounded the tread of marching feet:
All day long that free flag tost
Over the heads of the rebel host.
Ever its torn folds rose and fell
On the loyal winds that loved it well;
And through the hill-gaps sunset light
Shone over it with a warm good-night.
Barbara Frietchie’s work is o’er,
And the Rebel rides on his raids nor more.
Honor to her! and let a tear
Fall, for her sake, on Stonewalls’ bier.
Over Barbara Frietchie’s grave,
Flag of Freedom and Union, wave!
Peace and order and beauty draw
Round they symbol of light and law;
And ever the stars above look down
On thy stars below in Frederick town!
The historical marker located just outside Barbara Fritchie’s (Whittier spelled her name with an extra “e”) home notes that “spoilsport” historians have proven that this likely never happened. It is reported that while Jackson’s troops marched through the town, they never marched down this particular portion of West Patrick Street where the BARBARA FRITCHIE HOUSE (154 West Patrick Street) is located. In fact, some sources say that the elderly Fritchie was sick in bed that day though Mrs. Mary Quantrell did wave an American flag at Confederate troops, though she was ignored by them and later by history.
The house itself is a reconstruction built in the late 1920s. The original house, which had been built over a creek in 1785, was damaged during a flood and was demolished in 1868. The reconstruction now houses a small museum with artifacts relating to Mrs. Fritchie and possibly her spirit. The house is apparently not very active in a paranormal sense. A rocking chair is said to rock by itself and one staff member reported seeing a pair of feet underneath the quilt draped over the chair. It is also noted that the lights in the basement of the house next door (which was also occupied by Mrs. Fritchie) turn off and on by their own accord. While not terribly interesting paranormally, this house is one of a number of haunted locations within Frederick County, which appears to be a very active county.
N.B. This is an edit and repost of the very first location I wrote about for this blog, back in August of last year. I’ve combined what was originally two separate entries, updated some information and added pictures.
Ezekiel Harris House 1822 Broad Street Augusta, Georgia
One of the very first books of ghost I read was the late Kathryn Tucker Windham’s 13 Georgia Ghosts and Jeffrey. Windham’s books covering various Southern states broke ground as some of the first books on the folklore of many of these areas. These books create an important foundation for writing about Southern ghosts. Being among the first stories I read a child, I figured this would be a good location to start with. We’ll start with the history books.
The city of Augusta was laid out on the orders of the founder of Georgia, General James Oglethorpe, in 1736, three years after the establishment of the Georgia colony. Named for Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, wife of the Prince of Wales, the city was one of the first inland cities founded in the colony. It is located roughly 127 miles northwest of Savannah at the end of the navigable portion of the Savannah River. The city briefly became the capital of Georgia in 1779 after the fall of Savannah during the American Revolution, but the city also soon fell to British forces. The British held the city briefly and then recaptured and held it from May 1780 to June 1781.
Just before the outbreak of hostilities, the Augusta region was placed under the purview of Thomas Brown by Royal Governor James Wright. Brown was a wealthy Englishman who, with a boatload of indentured servants, created the settlement of Brownsborough, north of Augusta. Anti-British sympathy had begun to smolder in the area and Brown worked hard to stamp out the rebellious feelings of groups like the Sons of Liberty. As an example to other Loyalists, the group captured Brown and subjected to tarring and feathering, a horrifically painful and sometimes fatal ordeal. Escaping the city, Brown travelled to South Carolina where, upon recovery, he began to gather Loyalists about him to fight the revolutionary threat. Brown returned to the city with troops in tow in May of 1780 quite possibly hell-bent on revenge.
Upon entering Augusta again, Brown began quickly exacting measures against its patriot inhabitants, stripping those families of their possessions and expelling them from the colony. Others were arrested and put to death. These actions soon spread beyond the limits of Augusta and throughout British-controlled Georgia and South Carolina. Under Brown’s orders, a contingent of soldiers travelled north of the city to what is now Lincoln County, Georgia and murdered revolutionary leader Colonel John Dooley in his home.
On September 14th, 1780, Colonel Elijah Clarke, commander of the revolutionary forces that had been dogging the British in the area for some time, attacked an Indian village near Augusta, this putting Brown in notice that they were in the area. American forces pushed towards Mackay’s Trading Post, also called the White House, situated outside the city of Augusta near the Savannah River. Brown reinforced his forces which held the trading post with British regulars and allied Native Americans. The Americans laid siege to the trading post and the surrounding area, a siege that would last nearly four days.
The American forces retreated in the morning of the 18th having sustained nearly sixty casualties, but it’s the proceeding events that really concern us. Charles C. Jones, Jr. spells the story out quite grotesquely in his 1890 Memorial History of Augusta, Georgia:
Thus did Captain Ashby, an officer noted for his bravery and humanity, and twenty-eight soldiers fell into the hands of the enemy. He and twelve of the wounded prisoners were forthwith hung upon the staircase of the White House, where Brown was lying wounded, that he might enjoy the demonical pleasure of gloating over their expiring agonies. Their bodies were then delivered to the Indians, who, after scalping and mutilating them, threw them into the river. Henry Duke, John Burgamy, Scott Reeden, Jordan Ricketson, Darling, and the two brothers Glass, youths seventeen and fifteen years of age, were choked to death under a hastily constructed gibbet. Their fate, however, was mild when contrasted with that reserved for the other prisoners who were delivered into the hands of the Indians that they might be avenged of the losses which they had sustained during the siege.
This event was noted in a letter by Governor Wright to King George III: “Thirteen of the Prisoners who broke their Paroles & came against Augusta have been hang’d, which I hope will have a very good effect.” Windham notes that the number thirteen represented each of the rebellious American colonies. Though the Americans were repelled after this first siege and Thomas Brown was able to construct a small fortress closer to town, named Fort Cornwallis, British controlled Augusta was eventually broken following a siege in May of 1781.
Fast forwarding ahead 165 years to 1946, the Richmond County Historical Society purchased an 18th century house near the river believing it to be the infamous Mackay Trading Post. According to Cherie Pickett, an associate with Historic Augusta in a 1999 article in The Augusta Chronicle (notably one of the oldest American newspapers still in print), historians clung steadfastly to the idea that this building was the Mackay Trading Post for many years, with architectural historians and archaeologists possibly skewing their results to lend credence. Even more importantly to our cause, the Writers’ Project of the WPA recorded stories about the “White House” haunting in 1938 among many other noted Georgia ghost stories.
Mrs. Windham’s 1973 book gave wings to the story, enshrining it in the Southern folklore tradition. Windham recounts the legends that had grown up about the house. These legends state that visitors standing in the stairwell and slowly counting to thirteen would sometimes hear the thud of the thirteen men as they are hung or moaning of the dying men. Additionally, a female spirit has been seen wandering the second story as if searching for someone. Many have identified this spirit as Mrs. Glass, the mother of the two executed brothers. Windham adds wistfully that this spirit is said to hold her hands out in supplication, perhaps begging the spirit of Colonel Brown for a reprise for her sons.
But, there’s a problem. There had been questions for many years about the history of the building preserved and identified as the Mackay Trading Post. Mary Mackay, mother-in-law to the post’s owner, Andrew McLean, remarked upon seeing the damaged structure after the battle, “I have never seen such destruction.” The building identified as the trading post, however, showed no evidence of damage. A 1975 study by the state of Georgia confirmed that the house was not the Mackay Trading Post and that the misidentified house was likely built almost two decades later. As a result, the house was renamed the Ezekiel Harris House after the first known owner and the possible builder. Interestingly, some have said that the house, which was called by the Smithsonian Institute’s Guide to Historic America, “the finest 18th Century house in the state of Georgia,” would likely have never been purchased and restored had it not been mistakenly identified as the scene for such the bloody events of the American Revolution.
So, if the Ezekiel Harris House is not the Mackay Trading Post, are there still ghosts? Well, historians researching this first siege of Augusta have noted that the trading post was located somewhere in the vicinity of the Harris house, though the exact spot is unknown. We do know, however, that Ezekiel Harris, a tobacco merchant, built this house around 1797, though the exact date is unknown. Scott A. Johnson, author of The Mayor’s Guide to the Stately Ghosts of Augusta, posits that the ghosts may simply have taken up in the house after its construction. According to him, visitors still report odd occurrences on the staircase that includes the feeling of having a rope about your neck. He also reports that the female ghost is commonly seen as well.
It’s not uncommon for spirits to take up in a nearby structure if their regular haunt has been destroyed, but some remained unconvinced that this is the case here. Ben Baughman, manager of the house for the Augusta Museum, which has controlled the property since 2004, stated that he has had no experiences in the house. In 2006, two videos appeared on YouTube showing an investigation of the house. The first part of the video shows part of the usual tour of the house being led by Mr. Baughman as well as his docent’s spiel about the house’s history. The second video shows the beginning of a night investigation involving a Ouija board. The video ends just as the Ouija board is produced and there is no part II. So there is no indication that anything was discovered.
Interestingly, one of the females on the video states that the female apparition is probably not Mrs. Glass, but more likely Mrs. Ezekiel Harris. History may back her up on that assumption. While there are few records relating to either Mr. or Mrs. Harris, those that remain on Mr. Harris reveal that he was an ambitious businessman with some legal problems including an accusation of murder. In one surviving letter from 1805, Mr. Harris describes his wife as having breast cancer. She died the following year, quite possibly in the house. This does leave open the possibility that the spirit may be her still worrying over her husband’s troubles or the cancer in her breast.
The remainder of the home’s history may be relatively free of violence. The house was owned by two other families before being bought by the company constructing the Sibley Mill. The house was turned into a boarding house and the porch of the upper story was enclosed. Of course, as a boarding house, there may have been some violence and some tenants may not have left.
As for the question of whether this house is haunted, I cannot say. I would be interested in seeing the results of any paranormal investigations on the location. Certainly, with its age and history ghosts are likely, but I have not seen a single, identifiable report of paranormal activity. In other words, the descriptions of activity are always general and cannot be linked to any specific individual.
Back in July, I finally visited the Ezekiel Harris House for the first time. Presumably, due to budget cuts, tours of the house are now by appointment only and I only had time to take a few pictures and ponder the forlorn house from outside the white picket fence surrounding it. The house is a bit unkempt with grass needing mowing, a dead kitchen garden and a falling chimney. Even in that state, the house is a commanding presence, situated on a high hill with a vista of the grand Sibley Mill in the distance. I wonder if the spirits enjoy the solitude.
Labor Day Weekend was wild and wooley for New Orleans with Tropical Storm Lee hitting the city at the same time as numerous revelers for Southern Decadence and other events. A friend of mine, Benjamin Lewis, was able to take pics of a handful of haunted sites and I’m most grateful to him for these marvelous images!
Beauregard-Keyes House 1113 Chartres Street
One of the most famous homes in the city, the Beauregard-Keyes House has served as the residence for a number of famous names including Confederate General P. T. G. Beauregard, chess master Paul Morphy and novelist Frances Keyes. Events in this house have ranged from glittering balls to a bloody Sicilian mafia massacre in the early 20th century. Gun shots from the massacre are still heard, a waltzing couple seen inside while some have heard the name of General Beauregard’s Waterloo, Shiloh, being repeated over and over again. One resident even claimed to have encountered the battle of Shiloh being fought in the ballroom. I’ve covered this site in depth here.
Le Richelieu 1234 Chartres Street
Housed in two buildings, one dating from 1845, the other from 1902, the Le Richelieu Hotel occupies the site where five French patriots were executed in the late 18thcentury. The spirits of these five men may still reside here.
Housed in two buildings, one dating from 1845, the other from 1902, the Le Richelieu Hotel occupies the site where five French patriots were executed in the late 18thcentury. The spirits of these five men may still reside here.
Old United States Mint 400 Esplanade
From 1838 to 1909, this building housed the New Orleans Mint, producing currency in all denominations. Since its closure as a mint, the building served a variety of functions until 1981 when it became a part of the State Museum of Louisiana, the capacity in which it functions today. In the second floor gallery a man in blue coveralls has been seen rolling a cigarette. He then places the cigarette into his mouth and walks into a nearby wall.
Old Ursuline Convent 1100 Chartres Street
One of the oldest buildings in New Orleans, the Old Ursuline Convent has survived hurricanes, fires and the nuns have lent aid during plagues and epidemics. It’s no surprise that their old convent would house spirits. According to Jeff Dwyer, the spirits of Ursuline sisters have been seen gliding throughout the building while the spirit of a Civil War era soldier has been seen in the garden.
Dwyer, Jeff. Ghost Hunter’s Guide to New Orleans.Gretna, LA: Pelican Press, 2007.
Research is a form of trailblazing. There are mountains and unexplored regions of data and information. A researcher combs through this wilderness, marking the trail and finding their way to the most scenic and interesting vistas. In publishing, the researcher is publicizing that trail and permanently marking it for their readers and other researchers to follow. In publishing a book, a researcher is establishing a grand trunk line that many will follow and they enable those other intrepid explorers to blaze their own trails from that.
When I first started researching the paranormal a few years ago, I was amazed to find that there were many places where authors had blazed few trails. Major Southern cities like Chattanooga, Tennessee; Montgomery, Alabama; Jacksonville, Florida and Columbia, South Carolina, among others, lacked books and in some cases, even basic resources on their ghosts and hauntings. However, that list has recently gotten shorter with Jessica Penot and Amy Petulla’s recently published Haunted Chattanooga. A trail has finally been blazed through Chattanooga, a city whose ghosts had, until recently, not been fully explored in print.
Penot and Petulla are marvelous guides to Chattanooga’s spiritual side. Among the the locations they discuss are places that have been explored elsewhere, but they include quite a few locations that I’ve not seen discussed. They explore Hales Bar Dam which has very recently become a hotspot for paranormal investigation along with the ghosts of the Chattanooga Campus of the University of Tennessee which could be just as much a hotspot. Here the Hunter Museum’s elderly wraith is documented with a singing spirit in the Thurman Cemetery.
The authors have done a good job at plumbing the depths of Chattanooga’s history of hauntings as well. Legends and stories of haunted places that no longer exist are woven in with modern experiences. Stories of the old Hamilton County jail, which no longer exists, rub shoulders with modern hauntings in the Raccoon Mountain Caverns.
Both authors have a marvelously readable and relaxed writing style. This contributes much to the readers’ journey through the text. Overall, Penot and Petulla have carved a wonderful trail to be followed by future researchers into the haunted heart of Chattanooga.
Haunted Chattanooga By Jessica Penot and Amy Petulla is a part of the Haunted America series by History Press, $19.99.
Meridian, Mississippi was founded competitively. Lewis Ragsdale and John Ball bet on making a profit from the proposed junction of the Mobile and Ohio and the Vicksburg and Montgomery Railroads. Both purchased land in the area and they began laying out lots, yet they could not agree on the orientation of the streets thus creating streets that sometimes turn at odd angles. There was also disagreement over the new city’s name. Ball favored the name “Meridian,” while Ragsdale had a Native American name in mind, “Sowashee,” meaning “mad river” for a nearby creek. The competition progressed to the point where supporters of the two founders would change the train station’s name nightly.
The cloud of war arrived in the city just after the name Meridian was established, but it brought it many opportunities for the burgeoning town. The town’s strategic location brought an arsenal, military hospital, prisoner of war stockade and many state offices. The city’s importance also caught the eye of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman who decided to capture the city from Confederate General Leonidas Polk. On Valentine’s Day, 1864, the city fell to Sherman who intended to wipe this upstart town off the map. The city, already heavily damaged from the battle, was put to the torch.
Like so many other cities put to the torch by the Union army, such as Atlanta and Columbia, Meridian rose phoenix-like from the ashes. For the next half century the city served as a shining example of the “New South.” Mills and factories sprang up next to the railroads and workers poured in from the agricultural fields. Businessmen opened businesses to cater to the workers and business districts spring up. Among the many commercial buildings constructed were three in the 800 block of 22nd Avenue: THE PIGFORD BUILDING (818 22nd Avenue), THE MERIDIAN STAR BUILDING (814 22nd Avenue) and 813 22nd AVENUE (formerly the Peavey Melody Music store), all of which are believed to be haunted. The Meridian Star Building still houses the newspaper and takes up a large portion of the east side of the block and sits in the shadow of the Pigford Building which towers above. (I’ve just recently covered the hauntings here.)
The Pigford Building has a fairly well-investigated and documented haunting. The building was constructed around 1915 for the Knights of Pythias, a secret fraternal organization, and was called Pythian Castle Hall. In the 1920s, the building was purchased by Pigford Realty who rented out the building for retail and office space while the third floor held a ballroom. The retail space on the ground floor has seen many tenants and at some point in the last decade, the top floors have been closed. The windows to those two floors have remained boarded up.
Most of the activity has centered around a dress shop located in the retail space adjacent to the Meridian Star Building. Three different dress shops have occupied the space and both shops have had activity. The haunting was first noticed by employees in the form of spectral female laughter then later, whimpering and crying. Footsteps were heard upstairs in the empty building. Soon enough, clothing and jewelry which had been hung up the night before were being found scattered on the floor the following morning. In 1999, an employee saw an apparition: a lady with long hair in a white gown gliding across the balcony.
The shop’s owner worked late one night and had her young daughter with her when the little girl heard a woman’s voice on the intercom. She responded, thinking it was her mother, the mother asked her daughter who she was talking to and discovered someone else was on the intercom. The same owner had her three-year-old cousin with her another time. The little boy wandered upstairs and came down later saying, “I don’t like the lady in the long dress. She doesn’t like me.” Again, no one else was or should have been in the building. Not long after, the owner saw the lady in white for herself, silently gliding along the balcony.
Owners of the current dress shop had experiences with a vacuum cleaner. In both cases, the vacuum cleaner had been unplugged and moments after leaving the room, the machine turned itself on. The spirit may also have an affinity for a clock in the store. During one investigation, the clock moved forward by two minutes while witnesses were in the room.
Across the street the even older Wagoner Annex No. 3 Building housed the Peavey Melody Music store for many years. The store was opened in this building in 1945 by J. B. Peavey whose son, Hartley, started selling electronics out of the upstairs of this building, eventually creating Peavey Electronics. The store closed its doors in 2006 and the building appears to be unoccupied at the moment.
This building, however, has a much darker history. The same year the building was completed, a devastating tornado struck the central business district of Meridian, killing nearly 50 people. The Wagoner Annex No. 3 building housed the Smith Funeral Parlor which handled many of the bodies. The morticians were so overwhelmed with bodies that many were stacked on the second floor. Legend holds that there was so much blood that it was swept out of the first floor with a broom. During its time as the music store, employees in the building would occasionally hear the sound of children upstairs. At times they would hear children laughing and running up and down the hall only to discover no one upstairs.
A little ways down 22nd Avenue between Fifth and Sixth Streets stands another building from the post-war Golden Era, a building that brought prestige and culture to this backwoods town, the GRAND OPERA HOUSE (now called the Riley Center for the Performing Arts, 2206 Fifth Street). Built in 1889 by the owners of the neighboring department store, Israel Marks and Levi Rothenberg, this opera house brought the world to Meridian’s stage including the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt and the actress Lily Langtry, who was a mistress to Albert, Prince of Wales. The theatre operated successfully into the next century and part of it was converted for use as a movie house in the 1920s. The building was leased to Saenger Films of New Orleans and after a dispute over use of the structure, Saenger wanted to convert the building to offices so it wouldn’t compete with the Temple Theatre, the second floor opera house was closed. It remained shut up until the late 20th century, when it was rediscovered. It was recently fully restored and is now owned by Mississippi State University – Meridian Campus.
Before the Grand Opera House was reopened, people began to tell stories of a ghost. The executive director first encountered a spirit there while giving a tour to a young woman he was dating. Leading the young woman through the dark halls, the pair walked into a cold spot. Later the director would hear from a woman who worked in one of the retail stores that once operated on the street level. She would sometimes eat lunch on the old stairs to the opera house and would hear a woman singing in the dark theatre. Others have witnessed a woman in a white gown in the theatre. Most recently, a member of the cleaning staff and her daughter saw the woman who they said resembled the woman painted in a medallion above the stage. While the model for that painting is unknown, she certainly still gazes down upon audiences over nearly a hundred and twenty-five years since she was first painted.
When the curtain for the Grand Opera House was drawn in 1927, it was done to prevent competition with Meridian’s new grand showplace, the TEMPLE THEATRE (2320 Eighth Street). The Temple was constructed as a temple for the Hamasa Shrine organization, part of the Freemason order. In 1927, the temple was leased to the Saenger Corporation for use as a movie house. The Moorish revival-designed structure house the second largest stage in the country at the time, after New York’s Roxy and contained a marvelous Robert Morgan pipe organ to provide accompaniment for the silent films of the era.
The theatre was in regular use until the early 1970s when the Saenger’s lease expired. The building saw nominal use and was only very recently purchased by a Dallas businessman for use as a performing arts center. Staff members have begun reporting odd occurrences. One woman saw a dark human shaped form standing in a doorway while a group of people saw a white haired man standing in the corner of the room just beneath the stage. A group of stage hands who dared spend the night on the stage of the old theatre were frightened by numerous odd noises throughout the building all through the night.
With the Great Depression, Meridian’s economy faltered, but it picked up quite a bit of steam with World War II. Into the 1950s, the economy began a decline as the importance of the railroad waned with the advent of the car and the interstate highway system. The fight for civil rights during the 1960s brought the city some notoriety. When three young civil rights workers were killed in nearby Neshoba County, Michael Chaney, a citizen of Meridian, was among them. These deaths, among many, coupled with the work of the African-American community, helped spur Federal Civil Rights legislation. Meridian later honored Chaney by renaming part of 49th Avenue after him.
While repairing its race relations and reputation, the city has worked to preserve some of its history; though this fight is far from over. As industrialization has pulled out of the South, and the nation as a whole, cities like Meridian have watched their cores rot and crumble. Where the bells of streetcars one rang a peal of prosperity, the rumble of the bulldozer brought only despair and emptiness. The 1980s and 90s saw a good deal of work to preserve the historical fabric of Meridian; work that continues today and includes the preservation of the monumental Threefoot Building just down the street from the Grand Opera House and the 800 block of 22nd Avenue. A city landmark, this 16-story 1929 structure is mostly abandoned and was named to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2010 list of America’s Most Endangered Places. The building, named for the Threefoot family, since 2002 has also served as the centerpiece for the Threefoot Arts Festival. There is hope that this building will be saved and revitalized with much of the rest of downtown.
The name for MERREHOPE (905 Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Drive), the culmination of that hope that Meridian has to preserve its history, is derived from “Meridian,” “restoration” and “hope.” Merrehope carries that hope into the future after witnessing so much of Meridian’s history.
Merrehope’s history begins with one of its first settlers, Richard McLemore. A Virginian, McLemore settled the area in 1831, just after the Choctaw signed away much of their land in central Mississippi with the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. When Lewis Ragsdale arrived in the area to create his city, he purchased McLemore’s property. John Ball arrived only a few days later and purchased land adjacent to Ragsdale’s property which would all eventually become downtown Meridian. McLemore moved to an area north of his old property and in 1858 built a small house for his daughter Juriah and her husband, W. H. Jackson.
This small house, a few years later, served as headquarters for “The Fighting Bishop,“ Confederate General Leonidas Polk, who also served as the Episcopalian bishop for Diocese of Louisiana. Polk tried to ward off Sherman as he advanced on the city in February of 1864, but he was unsuccessful. The Jackson cottage would be one of only a handful of buildings that Sherman spared and it housed some of his officers. After the war, the house passed to John H. Gary who resided there with his wife and family. He added on to the cottage as did the next few owners; each adding and remodeling portions of the residence.
The house was carved into small rooms for a boarding house in the 1930s and remained that way for some 30 years. It was during this time that a young schoolteacher boarded in the house. Addicted to alcohol and gambling, the young man one night lined the mantelpiece of his room with whiskey bottles and shot them off one by one, then shot himself. His playful, yet mischievous spirit is one of the first that was encountered by the staff after the house was purchased by the Meridian Restorations Foundation and restored as a house museum and events facility in 1968. It is believed that his spirit haunts what is now the Periwinkle Room. The bed in that room is sometimes discovered to have a human-shaped indention in it.
In addition sounds of breaking glass sometimes emanate from this room. Jennifer Jacob, a reporter for The Meridian Star captured a possible EVP when she visited the home in 2007. She took and tour and recorded it on her recorder. When she played back the recording, she was surprised to hear a loud scream in the background. The other people speaking at the time took no notice of it.
Merrehope’s other spirit may be that of one of John Gary’s daughters. Eugenia Gary never lived at Merrehope, as she died before her parents moved there, but her spirit may be connected with her portrait that was acquired by the Foundation not long after they bought the home. Staff members have had run-ins with a young woman in a dress with a solid green top and a green plaid hoop skirt. Evidently, she bears a striking resemblance to the portrait of Eugenia. Staff members have also heard the rustle of her skirts and smelled rosewater perfume on occasions.
The hope of Merrehope has spread to another house, the FRANK W. WILLIAMS HOUSE that is now located just behind Merrehope. Built in 1886 on once fashionable 8th Street, this marvelous Queen Anne Style house was built by Frank W. Williams, the owner of an insurance agency for his bride, Mamie Watson. Williams had found success in this booming city and love with his new bride. After they married, they lived happily in the house until Mamie’s unfortunate death. In her later years, Mamie had become wheelchair bound and an elevator had been installed in the house. One day Mamie opened the door and backed on the elevator, but it was still on the first floor and she succumbed to her injuries a few weeks later.
Mamie’s devastated husband became a recluse, locking himself in his library until his death in 1949. In the 1970s as the city’s core began to deteriorate, the house was given to the Merrehope Restorations Foundations in order to save it. The house was moved and is being restored. With the restorations, staff and visitors have noted that the spirits of Frank and Mamie Williams remain. Most recently, a couple visiting last year noted the spirits and left hurriedly after feeling odd sensations. But, in their house as well as the rest of Meridian’s historic structures, hope and spirits linger on.
Brown, Alan. Haunted Places in the American South. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi. 2002.
Brown, Alan. Stories from the Haunted South. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2004.
Brown, Jennifer Jacob. “Elusive ‘lady’ spotted at Grand Opera House.” The Meridian Star. 14 September 2009.