The Ghastly Bell-Ringer and Bride

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church
80 Meeting Street
Charleston, South Carolina

Author Tim Prasil, who has written a number of novels about “a quirky yet brilliant ghost hunter named Vera Van Slyke,” collected and edited a wonderful volume of newspaper articles of paranormal interest appearing in American papers between 1865 and 1917. While leafing through this book, I happened upon this story from St. Michael’s Church in Charleston.

A Ghost Tolled the Bells.
Wahpeton (ND) Times, June 27, 1889
Reprinted from Atlanta (GA) Journal

Before the earthquake shook it down [this is the earthquake that struck the city 31 August 1886], the old guard house or police station was just across the street, in front of the church. Every night for years an old policeman, who had grown old and decrepit in the service of his country and lastly of his city, kept watch at the door. He had seen many strange sights, and he always said that the strangest he had ever seen was the dead man ringing the chimes from the belfry of old St. Michael’s. He had seen the shrouded figure, time and again, climb up to the bells and, not touching the ropes, which had been pulled so often by living hands, swing the heavy iron tongues against the sides of the bells and clash out a fearful melody which thrilled while it horrified the listener.

St Michael's Church Charleston SC
St. Michael’s Church following the 1886 earthquake. Cabinet card produced by Charles N. Beesley.

He would tell you, if you cared to listen to his story, how the ghost had been murdered, for in its normal state it had been murdered by the thrust of an Italian stiletto in Elliot Street. The spirit was “to walk the earth,” “revisit the glimpses of the moon,” ring the old chimes, and do other horrible things, until the murderer was captured.

A few minutes before midnight the old watchman would see this spectral chimer enter the church doors, forgetting to open them, swiftly and in a ghostly way glide up the steps of the winding stair, pause under the bells by the ropes where Gadsden [the church’s bellringer] rings them, climb on into the gloomy belfry and stop beneath the open mouths of the bells. They yawned down upon it, as if striving to swallow up the restless spirit. Suddenly, as if the inspiration had come, the shrouded hand would move silently and rapidly from iron tongue, and the wild eldritch music would swell the air.

spire of St Michaels Church Charleston SC
The spire of St. Michael’s, 2011. Photo by Lewis O. Powell IV, all rights reserved.

This important, landmark church (it has been named a National Historic Landmark), was constructed between 1752 and 1761, making it the oldest religious building in the city. Its bells, which were imported from Britain in 1764, are considered a symbol of the city. The bells were removed during the Civil War and were burned when Columbia (where they were stored) was destroyed by General Sherman. The bells were returned to the Whitechapel Foundry in London to be recast after the war. They have remained in the steeple ever since.

St Michael's Episcopal Church Charleston SC ghosts haunted
St. Michael’s, 2011. Photo by Lewis O. Powell, IV. All rights reserved.

Whenever I visit Charleston, I always savor the chance to step inside its cool and highly decorative interior. Of course, I’m always on the lookout for Harriet Mackie, the supposed ghost bride who appears to visitors. Though, during my daytime visits, she has yet to appear among the throng of tourists who seem to be absorbed in the quiet church.

The legend of Harriet Mackie is based on a factual account. Young Harriet died on June 4, 1804 at the age of 16 or 17. She donned her white wedding dress and fell ill a short time later. Within hours she had passed away. Rumors quickly spread that she had been poisoned as she was poised to inherit her father’s vast estate on her marriage, though the property was to pass to the owners of a nearby plantation if she died beforehand. As her corpse lay in bed still dressed in her wedding white, Charleston’s hoi-polloi paid their respects at her bedside and a French miniaturist, P.R. Vallée, pointed the portrait of the girl’s body.

Harriet Mackie (The Dead Bride)
Monsieur Vallée’s miniature portrait of Harriet Mackie shortly after her death. Courtesy of the Yale University Gallery of Art.

After her burial, people claimed to have seen the wedding dress clad spirit wandering through the church and the graveyard.

A glance at the graveyard roster reveals that it is the resting place of some of greatest Charlestonians. Interred in this sacred ground are two signers of the U.S. Constitution: Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and John Rutledge, and a marvelous assortment of congressmen, mayors, governors, and military leaders.

Recently, I came across the account of paranormal investigator George Dudding and his son who crept into the church’s graveyard after dark in 2018. The pair made their way into the graveyard by way of a back gate that had been carelessly left open. After producing various pieces of investigative equipment, they swept the site for any paranormal activity. While he listened to the chatter from a spirit box, Dudding saw a shadowy figure near a cluster of tombstones. He and his son ducked into the shadows, worried that it might be a security guard. When the figure began to move, it was decidedly not a living being as it moved through several tombstones and a wrought-iron fence. Frightened at their experience, the pair slipped out of the cemetery. Did they encounter the spirit of the bell-ringer or the ghostly bride? Or was it the spirit of one of the many people who rest here beneath the sod?

For more hauntings nearby, see my article “Doing the Charleston: A Ghostly Tour–South of Broad.”

Sources

  • Dudding, George. Graveyard Ghost Hunting: The Search Continues. Spencer, WV: GSD Publications, 2018.
  • Harriett Mackie (The Dead Bride). Yale University Art Gallery. Accessed 7 February 2021.
  • Poston, Jonathan H. The Buildings of Charleston: A Guide to the City’s Architecture. Columbia, SC: U. of SC Press, 1997.
  • Prasil, Tim. Spectral Edition: Ghost Reports from U.S. Newspapers, 1865-1917. Brom Bones Books, 2017.
  • St. Michael’s Episcopal Church (Charleston, South Carolina). Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 7 February 2021.
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