Abbeville Opera House 100 Court Square Abbeville, South Carolina
Ruth, it’s these fellows are fooling you! It’s they who keep your head set on the wages of sin, and all that rubbish. What have we got to do with suffering and sacrifice? That may be the law for some, and I’ve tried hard to see it as outlaw, and I thought I had succeeded. But I haven’t! Our law is joy, and selfishness; the curve of your shoulder and the light on your hair as you sit there says that as plain as preaching. —William Vaughn Moody, The Great Divide, 1906, the first play to open the Abbeville Opera House.
I’ve discovered, with much joy, that the state of South Carolina, like Virginia, has placed all of its National Register nomination forms online! Therefore, research for this state has been made much easier. Since I haven’t written much yet on South Carolina, I’ve been focusing on it this week.
As you may notice in my brief bio at the right of this text, I’m an actor first. I’ve been performing onstage since the ripe old age of four; starting as a singer and in musicals and working my way up to earning a theatre degree from Columbus State University in Columbus, Georgia. Following college, I have continued to play various roles both on and off stage including helping to found a Shakespeare company and editing and co-writing a history of the Springer Opera House in Columbus, as well. The Springer is haunted, of course, and I do plan on writing about it in the future. So, theatres, especially haunted theatres, combine two of the great passions in my life. What could be better?
Theatre has been a part of American culture from quite early on. Native Americans included theatre and dance as a part of their rituals. Many of the earliest European settlers shunned such cultural extravagances as being sinful—“they who keep your head set on the wages of sin”– but theatre took hold in the mid-18th century and did not let go. Travelling companies formed and trooped through the frontier bringing Shakespeare with them to people starved for any entertainment. Towards the end of the 19th century, theatres were springing up in any city that wished to call itself such. These theatres were the stopping places for thousands of performers travelling “the Road.”
Legend has it that Abbeville, South Carolina was just a nightly stopping place for major companies on the Road. When the citizens of Abbeville realized the benefits of having these companies perform in town, they built a theatre to accommodate performances. On an early evening in October of 1908 (sources differ as to the exact date), the opera house opened with a performance of the melodramatic The Great Divide. The local paper, The Abbeville Medium, raved that “the show was far above the average show that hails this way.” Later that month, Thomas F. Dixon’s controversial play, The Clansman, appeared. The play had caused riots and government officials in some towns had prevented performances due to its “sensitive” subject matter: the Ku Klux Klan, but the Medium described the play as being in no “sense offensive, as we thought it would be.” Another popular show of the era that played the Abbeville Opera House was one of the stage adaptations of Lew Wallace’s classic, Ben Hur. The story of a wealthy Jewish prince whose life is turned upside down by a minor accident, Ben Hur ends with the title character finding redemption after encountering Christ. Broadway producers turned the show into a family spectacle that included an actual chariot race with live horses onstage running on a treadmill. The show was a nationwide hit.
The Opera House also hosted popular minstrel shows, vaudeville (quickly becoming the most popular form of entertainment) and even the Ziegfeld Follies all straight from the boards of the Great White Way in distant new York City. These performances were gala events with the citizens turning out in their best finery. The Southern Railroad would even run special trains to and from the surrounding towns to see names like the great female comedienne, Fannie Brice or the Great Jimmy Durante. Certainly, with the lack of theatre in small towns now, it’s hard to imagine even a small town seeing many of the greatest performers of the day in a live performance.
Starting just two years after it opened, the Abbeville Opera House’s lights were dimmed to the flicker of the movie projector. For nearly the next two decade, film would slowly begin to edge out live performances. According to the Opera House website, nearly 3,250 films played in the Opera House between 1914 and 1930. By 1930, the Road was dying and film had begun to dominate American entertainment. The grande dames that were originally built to accommodate live theatre performances were slowly closed and demolished towards the middle of the 20th century. At this time, as the Abbeville Opera House started to take its final curtain call, George Settles formed a group, Abbeville Community Theater (the group performing in the Opera House is now the Opera House Players, though I’m not sure what relation they have to Settles’ group) to preserve live theatre in the area. Plans were made to restore the grand lady and fifty years after the house had opened so dramatically, the restored theatre was reopened with a production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.
The theatre world is rife with superstition and nearly every theatre is known to harbor a ghost and the Abbeville Opera House is no exception. Rumors of ghosts spread quite early. Local Larry Pursley recalls in his book, Abbeville, SC: A Backward Glance, that he was told as a child “a man had been hanged out of the small window near the top of the back of the Opera House.” He states that with his knowledge of local history now, he knows the story is ludicrous and completely untrue. But, other stories, however, have a ring of truth.
Theatre company members have had many experiences in this 102 year old theatre. Most of the experiences seem to center on the second balcony. This balcony, which in some theaters might be referred to as “the nose-bleed section,”was originally intended for non-white patrons during the era of segregation. Often these seats were the worst and the most uncomfortable and the entrance to this balcony was accessed through a different entrance so the two groups of patrons wouldn’t mix. The balcony, nowadays, is reserved for the “techies” or theatre technicians who run lights and sound and a ghost or two.
When the theatre was restored the second balcony was cleared except for a single chair. This single chair, known as the “ghost chair,” is untouched. Jerry Solomon, a set builder, remarked in a 2005 article in the Columbia, South Carolina paper, The State, that would not move or even touch the chair for fear that something would go wrong during the show. “The curtain won’t go down; lights will go out.” This sentiment has been expressed by many associated with the theatre. Theatre people, especially actors who are bound by routine during a show, are especially superstitious, but that doesn’t explain the strange reports coming out of the theatre.
One actor glancing up the second balcony during a show saw a woman standing there staring down at the stage. Cheralyn Lambeth, author of Haunted Theaters of the Carolinas, states an actor saw a woman in period dress applauding in the same balcony during the curtain call of a show. Other actors report the sound a lone applause coming from the same balcony while actors and techies have described add sounds coming from the balcony and the catwalks above the stage during shows.
Two legends exist to explain this phenomena. One speaks of an actress with a touring company who died while or shortly after performing in the Opera House possibly during the 1920s. The other mentions an African-American man who fell in love with a white actress and was murdered in the balcony by a racist mob when the relationship was discovered. Whatever the cause, there is something going on in the theater.
Cheri Standridge, director of the Greater Abbeville Chamber of Commerce, mentions that she accompanied a psychic on a walk of the Opera House. The woman encountered a number of spirits including a family sitting in one of the boxes and a man in a military uniform. One Georgia ghost-hunting team has investigated the Opera House at least four times, but has not published its results. Of course the number of times says something: if they hadn’t found anything, they would not have investigated it numerous times.
The Opera House continues to stage shows that are loudly applauded by the living and even some of the dead.
Abbeville Opera House.History. Accessed 28 September 2010.
Bordsen, John. “A Boo’s Who of Ghosts.” The State. 30 October 2005.
Fant, Mrs. James. National Register of Historic Places Nomination form for the Abbeville Opera House. Entered in the National Register 1 July 1970.
Jones, Jennifer. “Abbeville Opera House Known for ‘ghost chair.’” Anderson (SC) Independent-Mail. 23 October 2005.
Kyle, F. Clason. Lewis Powell, IV, editor. In Order of Appearance: 135 Years on America’s Most Celebrated Stage. Columbus, GA: Communicorp, 2006.
Lambeth, Cheralyn. Haunted Theaters of the Carolinas. Atglen, PA: Schiffer, 2009.
Pursely, Larry. Abbeville, SC: A Backward Glance. Alpharetta, GA: WH Wolfe and Associates, 1993.
Ware, Lowery. Old Abbeville: Scenes of the Past of a Town Where Old Time Things Are Not Forgotten. Columbia, SC: SCMAR, 1992.
University of Tennessee Campus Knoxville, Tennessee
Ghosts rarely receive official notice. The National Park Service, for instance, usually states that park service properties, including some of the bloodiest battlefields of the Revolution and the Civil War, are not haunted. Therefore, it’s interesting when an official organization or agency acknowledges a haunting. Such is the case of the myriad ghosts on the campus of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Not only does the University website host a page detailing its ghosts, but the website of the Tennessee State Archives includes information not only on the UT campus, but other haunting in the state. The campus’ ghosts span the range of history of the region from Native Americans whose burial grounds were possibly disturbed to Civil War soldiers who fought and died in battle on the campus to students who recently committed suicide.
HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSITY
The history of the university begins in 1794, shortly before Tennessee became a state, when it was founded as Blount College. The state legislature changed the school’s name to East Tennessee College in 1807 and it became a university in 1840. The school was founded initially on Gay Street in Knoxville, but the location was moved to a large site near town with a hill that offered a commanding view of the city. This hill, now known affectionately as “The Hill” became a main feature of the campus and one that the Pride of the Southland Band plays homage to on their march to the stadium on game days. This same hill, during the Civil War, became Fort Byington which looked northwest to a nearby hill with a large entrenchment called Fort Sanders (originally it was Fort Loudon but the name was changed when Brigadier General William P. Sanders was killed in action nearby).
Much of Eastern Tennessee did not owe much allegiance to the Confederacy. The area was not sprinkled with the slave-operated plantations that dotted the rest of the South and Union forces found little resistance when they moved in to occupy in 1862. When General James Longstreet led his Confederate forces to recapture Knoxville, they met with the forces of General Ambrose Burnside who had created a line just west of what was the university campus at that time. This line, stretching from the Tennessee River to Fort Sanders then around the northern edge of Knoxville to the fortified eastern side of the city, held the Confederates as they laid siege.
Before dawn on the morning of November 29, 1863, Confederate forces charged up the hill to Fort Sanders losing over 800 soldiers (about 120 were actually killed) in the twenty minute battle that followed. Many of these casualties occurred when the Confederates tripped on telegraph wire that had been strung between stumps around the fort. The ditch that surrounded the fort also claimed many. Longstreet’s gamble in Eastern Tennessee did not succeed and Burnside held Knoxville until the conclusion of the war.
Having been laid waste by the Siege of Knoxville, the University reopened after the war and began rebuilding. The state legislature named the University a land-grant university under the terms of the Morrill Act and renamed it the University of Tennessee when it reopened in 1868. The University has grown in size and respectability since and it consistently ranks among the top universities in the nation.
Besides the two online sources I mentioned previously, there are a few published sources on the ghosts of the University of Tennessee as well. Perhaps the best source is Daniel Barefoot’s Haunted Halls of Ivy: Ghosts of Southern Colleges and Universities, which appears to be one of the main sources for the two online sources. Barefoot, a North Carolina lawyer and former member of the state legislature, has written five books on ghosts and is an authority on North Carolina’s folklore. Alan Brown, professor of English at the University of Western Alabama and another noted author on Southern ghosts, includes the ghost of the Hoskins Library in his Stories from the Haunted Southland. Charles Edwin Price, who has written heavily on Tennessee folklore, also includes the University in his book, Mysterious Knoxville, though I don’t have this book in my library, yet.
ALUMNI MEMORIAL BUILDING
Ghosts sometimes may travel when the buildings they inhabit are demolished or destroyed. This is believed to have been the case for the Alumni Memorial Building. When the Old Science Hall was razed in 1979, Fanny, the building’s ghost, appears to have travelled to its replacement.
Originally, Fanny’s ghost was at home in the auditorium of the Science building where plays were performed, lectures given and chapel held. She had dreams of being a Hollywood actress and had supposedly gotten a contract with a studio but before she could head off to California, she contracted tuberculosis and died. Her spirit is said to appear during theatrical rehearsals in the Alumni Memorial, though no source provides specific descriptions of her activity or sightings of her.
GENERAL COUNSELING CENTER
According to Barefoot, the only author to mention this location, the General Counseling Center was located in an old house on Lake Avenue. The house, once owned by the Dean of Education, Dr. John A. Thackston, was willed to the University on his death. Barefoot states that the ghost of Dr. Thackston has been encountered in the house and blamed for doors opening and closing by themselves. After consulting the campus map, it appears that the counseling center has been moved as the building on the map is not on Lake Avenue.
Blood-curdling screams are heard in Hess Hall which, according to legend, are from a student who committed suicide in the 1970s.
The heart of the University, “The Hill,” is crowned by Ayres Hall with the old South College building nearby. The rest of the hill has been left as green space where two specters have been encountered: a large creature and the spirit of a man.
The creature encountered here has been described in varying ways. Some descriptions have indicated it is possibly canine, while others describe it as feline. Barefoot, Brown as well as the website, Ghosts and Spirits of Tennessee, describe a phantom wolf that is heard howling. The University website differs a bit and describes the creature as “a barghest (very large dog with huge claws and teeth).” In Rosemary Ellen Guiley’s masterful Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits, Guiley states that the barghest is a product of English folklore and is a “spectral hound that exists in Cornwall and northern England.” She continues that it is a death omen manifesting as a large dog or bear and making a shrieking sound.
It’s interesting that the barghest is possibly a death omen as the feline description of this creature usually uses the term “wampus cat” which is also a death omen. Alan Brown in his Haunted Tennessee provides the legend of the wampus cat and an aside about the University’s hill creature. The wampus cat is found in Cherokee legend where a young woman with a desire to hunt with the men cloaked herself with a mountain lion skin and followed them. After being undetected most of the day, she bumped into a tree branch and was discovered. The men, angered by this discovery, consulted with a shaman who bound the woman to the lion skin forever.
Brown recounts a modern encounter with this creature on The Hill. In the early part of this decade a young female student had moved into an apartment at the intersection of 16th Street and Cumberland Avenue quite near The Hill. One evening, she glanced out the window and saw a “human-size, cat-like being that was walking on its hind legs.” He also mentions that the creature had glowing eyes, a characteristic also noted on the University website.
As for the male spirit seen on The Hill, the University website describes him as:
The apparition of a young man wearing a Celluloid collar and bowler hat sometimes joins students in the evenings as they walk up the steps to the top of The Hill. He is generally seen walking with his head bent and his hands behind his back — and he does not acknowledge those with whom he walks.
The legend told is that man is a student from the 1930s who committed suicide after his girlfriend left him to marry someone else. The site notes that the spirit’s bowler hat hides a gaping head wound.
Built in 1931 with additions dating from the 1960s, the Hoskins Library is possibly home to two spirits. One spirit may be a former library director while the other is a bit more well-known, even being given the odd name “Evening Primrose.” Ms. Primrose, the female waif, is reported to play with the elevators, knock books off shelves and she may also be responsible for the smell of food cooking. Alan Brown quotes the director of the Rare Books and Manuscripts Division who had smelled food cooking in the basement stacks of the library, certainly a place where cooking food would be wholly out of place. The identity of Evening Primrose is unknown, but the University website opines that she may be the ghost of “a poor graduate student who secretly lived — and died — in the Library while researching her dissertation.
The Frank D. McClung Museum, with collections covering anthropology, the arts, and natural history, opened in 1963. Two sources, Daniel Barefoot and John Norris Brown (author of the Ghosts and Spirits of Tennessee website) assert that this structure was built atop Native American burial mounds and their spirits now roam its halls.
Home to parts of the Engineering Department, Perkins Hall was built near the site of Barbara Blount Hall which was demolished in 1979. When the foundation for Blount Hall was being dug in 1900, graves of soldiers were discovered which were then reinterred in the nearby National Cemetery. The spirits of these soldiers was said to roam the corridors of Blount Hall. These soldiers possibly relocated to the green space next to Perkins when Blount Hall was razed. The University website reports that eight Union soldiers are sometimes seen conferring among each other.
One of the mid-20th century dormitories, Reese Hall, like the McClung Museum, may also have been built atop Native American graves as well as an early 19th century cemetery. John Norris Brown states that early maps indicate this site as the location of a cemetery, yet records do not indicate the graves were moved. Reports of shadow people–dark, shadowy figures—have come from students in and around this building.
Of the haunting on the UT campus, Strong Hall is perhaps the best documented. The original core of the building opened in 1925 with five wings, each named for the first women to graduate from UT, being added in 1939. Strong Hall was built as a women’s dormitory with a sizable gift from financier and alumnus Benjamin Rush Strong on the site of his grandparent’s home. The gift was granted with the stipulation that it be used to construct a women’s dormitory named for his mother, Sophronia Strong and that the site would also include a flower garden. The building has served as a women’s dormitory until 2008 when the last female student passed through its rooms. The building is slated to be remodeled into instructional and laboratory space for the Department of Anthropology.
One wonders as to what “Sophie,” the structure’s resident ghost, may think of this decision. After all, her son’s gift included the stipulation that the building always house female students. These same female students have told stories for decades of a stern female spirit that would appear to stem heated arguments and confrontations. The antics of Sophie, who may possibly be Sophronia Strong, included more lively things such as locking girls out of their rooms and appearances in the mirrors of the bathroom around the time of her birthday.
TYSON ALUMNI CENTER
Acquired by the University in 1954, the Tyson House was owned by General Lawrence Tyson, a World War I General and U.S. Senator and his wife Betty. When the house was purchased, the University agreed to maintain the back yard grave of the Tyson’s beloved dog, Bonita (or Benita, sources differ). Bonita still appears in the house as well as the shades of her owners, the Tysons. It is said that Bonita is still heard howling at night, or is this the barghest or wampus cat? With the numerous spirits of the University of Tennessee, it could possibly be all three.
As my first blogging trip, I’ve headed to Milledgeville, Georgia to explore some of its haunted past. Milledgeville was established in Middle Georgia by an act of the state legislature in 1803. The city was laid out as a seat of government for the state based on the designs for Savannah and Washington, DC. The state government was moved from Louisville in 1807 to the newly built and unfinished statehouse in the center of Statehouse Square. By 1814, the once rough and tumble town had grown into a respectable city that attracted wealth and prosperity. The new capital attracted skilled architects who created grand homes and government buildings including a state penitentiary, mental asylum and an institute of higher learning, Oglethorpe University.
In January of 1861, the city’s illustrious rise to prominence entered its twilight when a convention of delegates passed the Ordinance of Secession and officially joined the Confederate States of America. The city erupted in joy but on a fall day three years later, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman would enter the city accompanied by some 30,000 troops who would pillage and ransack it before leaving a few days later on their March to the Sea. The ruined capital was dealt a harsher blow when the state capital was moved to Atlanta in 1868.
The city remained provincial but worked to provide educational resources for the state. While Oglethorpe University during the Civil War and closed in 1872 (to be rechartered in Atlanta in the 20th century), Middle Georgia Military and Agricultural College (now Georgia Military College) was founded in 1879 in the Old State Capital building in Statehouse Square. Ten years later on the site of the Georgia Penitentiary which had burned during the Northern occupation of the city, the Georgia Normal and Industrial College (now Georgia College and State University) was founded. The state mental asylum developed into Central State Hospital which would carry a patient load of nearly 12,000 people in the early 1960s. Changes in mental health treatment have led to the slow phasing out of the hospital and many of its programs. Combined with the closing of local mills, the local economy has had to shift away from health care and manufacturing towards industries such as tourism.
With a concentration of historic structures, it’s no wonder that Milledgeville has many ghosts. Kathryn Tucker Windham in her 13 Georgia Ghosts and Jeffrey, includes the story of Sam Walker, who was mayor in the 1870s, who was deemed “the meanest man in Georgia” after he contributed to the untimely death of his son. It is believed that both Walker and his son may still haunt their former home. Barbara Duffey has penned two books, Banshees, Bugles and Belles: True Ghost Stories of Georgia (1995) and Angels and Apparitions: True Ghost Stories From the South (1996) both of which document many hauntings in Milledgeville.
Following are photographs of some of the haunted locations in Milledgeville. As my research continues, these locations will be highlighted individually.
Duffey, Barbara. Angels and Apparitions: True Ghost Stories From the South. Eatonton, GA: Elysian Publishing, 1996.
Duffey, Barbara. Banshees, Bugles and Belles: True Ghost Stories of Georgia. Berryville, VA: Rockbridge Publishing, 1995.
Exchange Hotel 400 South Main Street Gordonsville, Virginia
N.B. Revised 3 January 2019.
As I’m researching and beginning to write about Southern ghosts, I’ll be highlighting places that appear on my radar due to recent news articles. The Exchange Hotel is one of those places. An article appeared in a recent edition of C-ville, a Charlottesville, Virginia news and arts weekly and I immediately became interested in seeing what I could find on this place.
God bless the Virginia Department of Historic Resources for placing the state’s numerous (over 2,700 statewide) National Register forms online! It makes historical research on this location much easier. If available, these forms can present a fairly accurate history of a location. Unfortunately, outside of Virginia, the National Park Service (NPS), the keepers of the National Register, has only made select forms available online. Among those forms currently available are all forms for National Historic Landmarks (NHLs). NHLs are those places deemed by the NPS to be of national significance and inclusion as an NHL includes automatic listing on the National Register. The editors of Wikipedia have also deemed National Register properties to be notable enough to create separate articles on each which can be quite helpful and often provides information not found on the nomination form, though many places do not yet have articles.
Some places appear to be positively crawling with ghosts and the Exchange Hotel seems to be one of those places. According to the C-ville article, the hotel has been investigated some 20 times. However, it appears that investigations have yielded a huge amount of evidence, including EVPs (Electronic Voice Phenomena), photographs, video and recorded personal experiences.
It’s no surprise that the Exchange Hotel has ghosts. The three-story, late Greek Revival structure was built in 1860 to replace a tavern that was built on the site in 1840. The site was at the intersection of two major railways, the Chesapeake and Ohio (C & O) and the Alexandria and Orange (A & O) Railroads and is near the Gordonsville Depot which was built around the same time as the original tavern (the depot is apparently also haunted and has been investigated by the Shenandoah Valley Paranormal Society).
The hotel opened in a period of mounting hostility that would eventually lead to the first shots of the Civil War in April of 1861. By June 1862, the hotel was serving as part of the Gordonsville Receiving Hospital, a massive operation that, by war’s end, would treat some 70,000 soldiers, mostly Confederate, but including some Union soldiers as well. These soldiers would pour in from many of the nearby Virginia battlefields including Cedar Mountain, Chancellorsville, Brandy Station and the Wilderness. Obviously, many died, though I haven’t encountered an exact number, but it is known that just over 700 of those were buried on the hotel property.
Following the sadness of its days as a hospital, the building served as an office for the Freedman’s Bureau, a government agency that provided aid to freed slaves and war refugees between 1865 and 1872. The hotel was soon returned to its original function as a luxurious railroad hotel offering the best of Southern hospitality. The hospitality of the hotel was so well-known that humorist George W. Bagby dubbed Gordonsville “the chicken-leg centre of the universe.” This fine reputation was enjoyed until the hotel closed in the 1940s. The building served as a private residence and later was divided into apartments before being acquired by Historic Gordonsville, Inc. which restored the hotel as a museum.
So far, nothing in my research has indicated when people in the Exchange Hotel began experiencing spectral phenomena. I would speculate that the phenomena began shortly after the building’s usage as a hospital, though I don’t have any evidence of that. Many buildings throughout the South were commandeered for use as hospitals throughout the war and many of those remaining are often considered haunted; witness Carnton Plantation in Franklin, Tennessee. This house served as a hospital during and for many months after the Battle of Franklin in 1864 and the activity in the house is at a high enough level that a book has been written specifically about it.
Among those spirits are a young African-American male who is supposed to have hanged himself in the kitchen building, a former cook, one the Quartermasters who was in charge of the hotel during the war as well as a female who was possibly his companion and, according to a longtime museum volunteer, the wraith of Major Cornelius Boyle who was the post commander. These spirits and possibly a host of others, have caused a high level of paranormal activity including disembodied voices, apparitions, shadow figures, items being misplaced and witnesses being physically touched.
It appears that information on the hotel’s haunting has yet to be published aside from scattered ghost hunt reports and the C-ville article. Though, it does appear that the site is receiving attention from the local ghost hunting community, even appearing in a TV show produced by Research Investigators of the Paranormal or R.I.P., a team out of Richmond, Virginia. Two other teams, SSPI (lead by Mark Higgins and the subject of the article) and the Shenandoah Valley Paranormal Society, teamed up for two joint investigations of the premises. All three teams were able to collect a good deal of evidence ranging from EVPs to video. Numerous photographs also had anomalies including dark shadows, the de rigueur orb photographs (which are often easy to discount) and a few with some possible human forms. One of the more interesting videos shows a door that just been closed opening by itself while another video captures an odd light in one of the bedrooms. Both investigations by SSPI and the Shenandoah Valley Paranormal Society were concluded with the finding that the Exchange Hotel is haunted.
Certainly, this is a location that is brimming with history and important simply from a historical standpoint. It also appears that with the high amounts of paranormal activity occurring in these locations, this place may also end up being important in a paranormal sense. As always, I would welcome any input readers have on this location.
Noxubee County Library 103 East King Street Macon, Mississippi
N.B. Revised 28 December 2017.
Sitting in a jail cell in the newly opened Noxubee County Jail in 1907, Si Connor was visited by Jesus. “Jesus have been here since I been in jail and have taken me to hell and showed me everything there, and what sort of place it is,” he told a reporter a couple weeks before his execution. Connor was shown a “big fire” with a “man toting water to the folks in the fire.”
“Hell,” continued the inmate, “is a right big place. Yassah, I spec it is as big as Macon, maybe bigger.” In preserving the African-American man’s dialect, the unnamed reporter from the Macon Beacon showed no compassion for the man’s vision, based on race and class. Interestingly, Connor points out that the fire contained both whites and blacks.
Connor’s next vision took him to the gallows that had been erected for his own state-sponsored demise. The sheriff put the noose around his neck and a pair of angels appeared and told him, “Si, don’t you be skeered or shamed or nothing for you is a child of God.” The angels flew him to heaven where he was greeted by his grandmother, sister, and “my little baby.” “I saw lots of Noxubee county folks up there. Yassah, white people too.” Continuing in his vision, Connor replies, “Jesus Christ told me to tall all the people down here to believe in him and He would save them.”
The reporter notes that “the condemned man tells all this with earnestness and sincerity, but with the same silly smile he wore when on the witness stand telling of killing his wife with an ax.” The jailer is quoted saying that Mr. Connor “has no dread of death, saying he wants to stay here as long as he can but is ready to go and doubtless he is. As a horrible example to a portion of his race, he will prove a failure.”
Allow me to round out the scene with a bit of local history. In 1830, sixty Choctaw leaders met with government agents at a place with the marvelous name of Dancing Rabbit Creek. There the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek was signed on the 27th of September ceding some 11 million acres of Choctaw land east of the Mississippi River to white settlers in exchange for some 15 million acres in Oklahoma.
The ceded land became a huge swath of what is now the state of Mississippi and a small portion of western Alabama. In 1833, the portion of the ceded lands around Dancing Rabbit Creek was established as Noxubee County, so named for the Noxubee River; meaning “stinking water” in the Choctaw language. Near the center of the county, on the Noxubee River, the town of Macon was established as the county seat. The town prospered and, according to the 1938 WPA guide to Mississippi, “the big white- columned homes are the remaining evidence.”
As Sherman burned the state capital, Jackson, during the Civil War, the state government moved to Macon temporarily, setting up business at the Calhoun Institute, one of a handful of schools in and around Macon. Two sessions of the state legislature met in these school buildings while one of them, as well as many of Macon’s church buildings, were commandeered for hospitals.
Most histories of the area seem to stop just after the turmoil of the Civil War, so one might be tempted to assume that the town returned to being a sleepy hamlet. Judging from the population numbers in the 1938 WPA guide (2,198 people) and the numbers provided by Wikipedia (2,461 people in the 2000 census), it seems that little has changed throughout the bulk of the twentieth century.
The original Noxubee County Jail was constructed in Macon in 1860, on the eve of the Civil War. Around the time the new jail was constructed, the old jail was described by a local attorney and state representative as being, “no jail at all.” Unfortunately for the local citizenry, the old jail was regularly the scene of prisoners simply removing bricks from the masonry walls to escape.
Hailed for its luxurious appointments, the new jail offered “steam heat, electric lights, hot and cold baths and ‘saw and file-proof cells,” which “will minister to [the prisoners’] comfort and pleasure their sense of the magnificent.” The new facility was constructed by the Pauly Jail Company, a company out of St. Louis that has been constructing correctional facilities since 1856. Quite a number of the historic (and haunted) jails remaining throughout the South were constructed by this company.
Recognizing the need for a modern facility, a new jail was constructed in 1978. The historic importance of the old jail was noted and the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places the same year it closed. In 1983, the building was renovated for use as a public library all the while maintaining some of the inner workings of the original building including bars and unused gallows.
About two weeks after Connor reported his description of the inferno to the Macon Beacon, gallows were erected for him across the street from the jail. During the days leading up to Connor’s hanging, he was allowed to preach to crowds of African-Americans that gathered below his window. On Friday, September 26th, 1907, before a crowd that had gathered to witness “the deep damnation of his taking off,” Connor left this world.
Connor walked, dressed almost entirely in black, resolutely to the scaffold and spoke in a strong voice before the noose placed over his neck and the trap sprung. The paper describes the scene with a sense of wonderment. “There were curious ejaculations as to the expressions of wonder at the nerve he exhibited in the face of horrible death, and there were—from the emotional members of his own race—exclamations of admiration for his courage and his religious faith that braved the terrors of the unknown future.”
According to Alan Brown, inmates of the jail reported that Connor continued to make appearances within the building and that his spirit still abides in the library that once held him. Perhaps this Mississippi Dante is still trying to save the living souls of Noxubee County.
Brown, Alan. Stories from the Haunted South. Oxford, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2004.
Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration. Mississippi: A Guide to the MagnoliaState. New York: Viking Press, 1938.
Spring Villa 1474 Spring Villa Road (Lee County Road-148) Opelika, Alabama
N.B. This article was revised 6 December 2018.
In a clearing amid remnants of the pine forests that once covered this landscape, Spring Villa still stands proudly, though faded. Like a tired, aged matron, her paint needs to be reapplied and a piece of ornamental woodwork hangs above a window like a fallen false eyelash. From her back a modern addition juts out like an ill-fitting headpiece and only sharpens the harsh angles of her architecture. Even in this state of dishabille, the home’s Gothic symmetry and angularity still shines through.
The large Gothic gables give the house a villainous and haunted appearance. During the 1930s, when this estate was used as a 4-H camp, campers would be taken into this house at night where they heard the legend of this house. That legend centers on the small, closet-like staircase that claustrophobically rises to the second floor, from living quarters to sleeping quarters, mirroring the trajectory of the soul. In this cramped staircase a vengeful slave supposedly hid in the small niche and leapt out one evening as his master, William Yonge, ascended the staircase. The slave stabbed the master he hated and fled, leaving Yonge to bleed out on the thirteenth stair.
William Penn C. Yonge was, according to Horace King’s biographers, from Marianne, Florida and had returned to the South after going to California for the Gold Rush. He married, Mary, the oldest daughter of John Godwin, a builder in nearby Columbus, Georgia. Quite possibly, money that Yonge had earned in the Gold Rush provided the capital for him to build a house as well as going into business. Yonge, with two other investors opened the Chewacla Lime Company in 1851 and it was around this time that he also built Spring Villa. It’s important to note the area’s geology includes large amounts of limestone as well as quartz, both of which are believed to provide energy to spirits. (see my article on Sylacauga, Alabama’s Comer Museum for more about stone’s ability to conduct energy)
Godwin, Yonge’s father-in-law, moved from South Carolina with his slave, Horace King, to build a bridge across the Chattahoochee River in Columbus. More important in this equation is Horace King, a fairly important name in the history of the region. Born a slave with African and possibly Native American ancestry, he distinguished himself as an important architect and builder, especially of bridges. King constructed massive town lattice truss bridges over many major rivers throughout the Deep South. At the time of the building of Spring Villa, King was a freedman, after purchasing his freedom from Godwin. Though records do not exist, it is quite possible that King was both the designer and builder of Spring Villa with some aid from John Godwin.
The home’s design utilizes the Carpenter or Vernacular Gothic Style which became popular in America in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. The façade is identical on both sides of the house and sports three steeply pitched gables decorated with wooden millwork and topped with a decorative finial. All three gables also feature latticework balconies that may perhaps be a nod to Kings use of lattice in bridges.
The house is described as having initially been a showplace with gardens and lakes where the Yonge’s held lavish parties and events. Following the death of her husband, Mary Godwin Yonge sold the entire 455-acre plantation to the Chewacla Lime Works and later the estate passed into the hands of the Renfro family. The Renfro’s sold the property to the City of Opelika to use as a water supply. The house was restored by the Lee County Civil Works Administration in 1934 and a matching kitchen added perpendicular to the back of the house. The grounds were developed to accommodate a summer camp, the same camp that created the legend. The grounds were then turned into a city park and remain so to this day.
Returning to the legend, by all accounts the story is preposterous. William Penn C. Yonge died in 1879 and was buried in a small cemetery near the house. That presents a problem if a slave murdered him as slavery had been abolished in 1865, 14 years earlier. The second issue is that Mr. Yonge reportedly died of natural causes. Even though the legend is entirely derailed by history, that fact does not preclude the house from being haunted.
Over the years visitors to Spring Villa have reported a variety of paranormal phenomena, though I have been unable to determine how long visitors have experienced anything unusual. Phenomena reported has included people seeing figures in the upper stories of the house and the 1934 addition, though currently the second floor of the addition cannot be reached without a ladder as the breezeway between the buildings has been torn down. Voices, music from a piano (the house is not furnished) and the sound of footsteps have also been reported. Visitors also report feelings of unease and also feeling hands pushing them on the thirteenth step.
The Alabama Paranormal Research Team has investigated the house on numerous occasions and it has included an investigation report on its website. One interesting account that they report involves a camp counselor called “Magic Mike” who reportedly witnessed a man playing the piano in the empty house. A Mr. Harrellson, the director of Opelika Parks and Recreation, found the man sitting on the floor of the empty residence crying and shocked at the scene he had just witnessed. Unfortunately, the team fails to include a source for this story.
The team also reports that one of their researchers located the details of the deaths of three young girls who drowned in a lake on the property. The evidence that the group presents includes a few examples of EVP (electronic voice phenomena – when voices are picked up on recording devices, though not heard by those present at the time) and some interesting video.
Southern Paranormal Research, who investigated the house and grounds in 2008, presents a more complete report as well as some very compelling evidence. In their investigation of May 24th, investigators made some interesting discoveries in trying to debunk some of the phenomena. They explain that matrixing may be responsible for figures being seen in the upper stories. In other words, the minds of witnesses may simply be fooled by the odd interplay of light and architecture into seeing figures. The team also notes that sound carries very well throughout the house which might explain some of the sounds heard by witnesses.
The remaining investigation appears to be mostly of the grounds where the team did have some odd experiences, hearing things in the woods and seeing a large, shadowy figure on the road. Some EVPs were also recorded that are rather interesting including a growl and laughter possibly from a child. The director’s final verdict suggests that further study is needed, though there is apparently a good deal of paranormal phenomena going on. The report for the team’s second investigation is incomplete, but does include an EVP of a man screaming that is rather haunting.
On a hot and muggy Sunday in 2010, I visited Spring Villa for the first time. The park was almost spookily devoid of visitors or any other humans and seemed the proper setting for the opening of a horror film. Birds and bugs chirped and chortled as I approached the house. The house certainly appears to be haunted and the dreadful condition of the house only adds to the feeling. Paint is peeling, a few balconies are missing, one of the boards from a balcony hangs by a single nail, the windows of the main house appear to the covered with black plastic from the inside and the buildings appear to have not been well maintained since the 1934 restoration.
As I approached one of the side chimneys to take a photograph, I was met with the titter of bats in the eaves. I immediately thought of a line from one of Horatio’s speeches in Shakespeare’s Hamlet where he notes that “The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead/ Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets.” Perhaps the sheeted dead still squeak and gibber here just as the bats; it’s certainly not hard to imagine so.
Alabama Paranormal Research Team. Investigation Report: Spring Villa Mansion, Opelika, AL. Retrieved 7 August 2010.
City of Opelika. Spring Villa. Retrieved 7 August 2010.
Lee County Heritage Book Committee. The Heritage of Lee County, Alabama. Clanton, AL: Heritage Publishing Company, 2000.
Lupold, John S. and Thomas L. French, Jr. Bridging Deep South Rivers: The Life and Legend of Horace King. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2004.
Opelika Parks and Recreation. Spring Villa Park. Retrieved 7 August 2010.
Southern Paranormal Research. Investigation Reports for Spring Villa, May 24, 2008 and September 20, 2008. Retrieved 7 August 2010.