Area rich in ghost stories, folk lore
The cool spot at the top of the stairs that sends shivers down your spine; the goose-bumps that dance down your arm for no discernible reason; the misty dark shape caught out of the corner of your eye – it’s the haunting season. Time for things to ‘go bump in the night’ that people can’t explain but are the fodder for ghostly tales they love to tell.
The antebellum home, Gainswood, has been the subject of ghost stories for years – made famous with Kathryn Tucker Windham’s 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffery in 1964 – but there is a more recent account of another local haunting.
Bluff Hall, built in 1832 and owned by the Marengo County Historical Society, has its own ghostly story.
According to Dr. Alan Brown, a professor at the University of West Alabama in Livingston who has authored numerous books on haunted places, this particular tale is rooted in historic fact, which makes it even more interesting.
“The night before Halloween in 2003, Kathy Leverett, the Demopolis Chamber of Commerce president, her daughter and some friends spent the night at Bluff Hall. No one had previously spent the night there since 1967 when it became a museum,” said Brown. “As they were getting ready for bed they heard some noise upstairs — sounded like a little kid jumping rope. It went on for a while and then it would stop. A few minutes later after the girls had fallen asleep it started up again and Kathy decided she would investigate.”
Brown said Leverett walked up the stairs and but stopped on the fifth step when she suddenly felt someone was standing next to her. She looked down and there next to her was a child, about 7 or 8 years old. It was a boy with long hair dressed in a period nightgown. “She was not scared,” said Brown, “but felt sad instead. She said she felt as if he was looking for his mother.”
“She turned around and walked down the stairs. When she got to the bottom, he was gone,” said Brown.
Leverett still wasn’t quite sure if she had actually seen something paranormal, recalled Brown, so she sat in a chair on the first floor and just watched.
“Out of the corner of her eye she saw a figure. It was the boy again, this time in front of a big window looking out toward the road — again with a very sad, long, wistful expression on his face,” Brown said. “He then just kind of vanished.”
The next day, Brown said Leverett checked out the history of the house to see if a young boy had ever died there.
Kirk Brooker, the director of the Marengo County Historical Society, found that on April 29, 1877, the homeowners’ grandson, Leonidas Mecklenburg Polk, had died of scarlet fever. He was eight years old.
Polk, who was called Merk, was the son of William M. Polk and Ide Lyon Polk and the grandson of Mr. and Mrs. Francis Strother Lyon of Bluff Hall and Confederate general Leonidas Polk.
“His mother was expecting a baby in New York, where they lived,” said Brown. His parents had sent him to Demopolis a few months earlier to celebrate Christmas with his grandparents. She gave birth in March and couldn’t make the trip to Alabama before the boy died in April, so he died without seeing his mother for the last time.”
He was buried in the F.S. Lyon family plot at Riverside Cemetery.
“As far as I know that is the only sighting of that little boy,” Brown stated. “I was there last year and talked to people there and they didn’t know the story.”
“Child ghost stories are sad,” said Brown. “More often than not, they involve the children looking for their parents. Kathey even sensed that at the time.”
Brown said that parapsychologists would label the account a residual haunting because it did not interact with her.
“It happens over and over again like a film loop,” he said. “Although it is interesting that he did stand next to her. He could have sensed that she was a mother and had a maternal feel about her.”
Brown received a grant through UWA to research such tales and folklore for his books. “When I research them I usually find there is some historical basis,” he said. “That’s what makes them interesting.
“There is some truth to the ghost tales at Gainswood too, but that is a perfect example of a story that has evolved through the years through various retellings,” said Brown.
Brown said that in the mid-1850s, Nathan Bryan Whitfield, the owner of Gainswood at the time and of a couple large cotton plantations, hired a teacher and governess for his two daughters Edith and Betsy Winifred, who were in their early teens. Elizabeth Robertson was chosen as the teacher and her sister, Charlotte Robertson, became the governess in January 1956.
In the spring of 1856, Elizabeth became ill shortly after coming to Gainswood. Her heath deteriorated to the point that she had seizures, and at one point she stopped breathing. Whitfield’s son, Dr. Bryan Watkins Whitfield, performed artificial respiration on Elizabeth and revived her on May 5. However, she died 10 days later in one of the upstairs rooms.
“Elizabeth’s body was placed in the Glover Mausoleum for a few months until it could be transferred to her family in New York the next year,” said Brown.
“In the Kathryn Windham story Elizabeth became Evelyn Carter of Virginia, which folk stories attribute to the haunting of Gainswood today,” he said. “Mrs. Carter was lonely and had her sister stay with her during the dark winter months. They played the piano and they would have little musicals where the kids would sing and the general would play the bagpipes.
Then during the winter she died. Some says she dies of pneumonia, others say she fell in love with a young lieutenant from the Vine and Olive Colony and they had a falling out. She took her engagement ring off her finger and threw it in the bushes and she died of a broken heart.
According to the legend, after she died her body was placed in a pine box and not given a proper burial.
“It says all of the servants could here her walking the steps at night and piano playing,” said Brown. “Her body was finally transported to Virginia and placed in her family’s plot, but that didn’t end the haunting. They continued.”
Brown said he interviewed an elderly lady about ten years ago who said during World War I she had a sleep over at Gainswood with a little girl who lived in the house.
‘That night they could hear someone playing the piano. They went to investigate, but there was no one there,” Brown recalled. “About five years I talked to dolson who was a graduate student of mine. She said she didn’t hear the piano, but she did hear the footsteps walking up and down the steps. So, who knows?”
There are also local ghost stories about objects such as trains and boats — not just people, said Brown.
“Every spring on the Tombigbee, the coast guard gets calls from people regarding the sighting of a burning boat. It was reported to be just around a certain bend in the river,” said Brown. “The coast guard would get in the boats and approach the bend expecting to find a catastrophe, but find nothing.”
Brown believes what they are seeing is actually the ghost of a paddle steamer, the Elza Battle.
One day in February of 1858, the Eliza Battle was loaded with cotton bales heading down the Tombigbee River.
“It was a custom at that time for the families of the planters to accompany the cotton to New Orleans, so the boat was full of people,” said Brown. “There was a brass band, they had a calliope, and fireworks.”
“Some of the cotton bales caught fire, no one really knows how. It could have been the fireworks or it could have been sparks from the smokestack.
The blaze burned through the tiller rope and the ship drifted out of control down the river as dozens of helpless passengers jumped into the icy water of the flooded river, attempting the swim to the bank.
“Several people were reportedly drowned or froze to death in the icy waters,” said Brown.
Rebecca Coleman Pettigrew, who lived near the river, cared for many of the injured survivors of the tragedy.
“While we know it happened, we don’t really know how many people actually died in the incident. Some accounts say it was twenty. Some say over fifty,” Brown said.
Brown has spent several years following such ghost stories and folklore not only in West Alabama, but also throughout the United States.
He is the author of over thirteen books about folklore and ghost stories including The Face in the Window and Other Alabama Ghostlore (1997), Shadows and Cypress (2000), Haunted Places in the American South (2002), Stories from the Haunted South (2004), Ghost Hunters of the South (2006), and The Ghost Hunters of New England (2008).
In his latest book, Ghost Hunters of New England, Brown finds in each of the six New England states groups of ghost hunters like the members of Connecticut’s “Skeleton Crew Paranormal Research Society” and Maine’s “Bangor Ghost Hunters Association”. With pack cameras, Geiger counters, electromagnetic field detectors, digital voice recorders, infrared thermometers, thermal scanners, oscilloscopes, tape recorders, computers, and dowsing rods in search of elusive proof of supernatural activity, Brown joins the ghost hunters on frightening investigations of places throughout New England.