On Thurs. Sept. 16, 1869, the people of Charleston opened their newspapers to read the story of a haunted house. The small brick building carried with it no known history of murder or any other atrocity that may warrant the possession by spirits, yet, according to the Charleston Daily News, it was infamous.
“Women and children avoid it in the daytime, and the men who live in that section have learned that, at night, the nearest way around is the shortest way home,'” the article explains.
For two years, the property had been advertised in the paper as “To Rent,” but those brave enough to take the offer never stayed long. One occupant only lasted 10 hours, while another group made it a record two weeks before they were finally frightened away. Each and every resident told the same story: sounds of rattling chains, strange footsteps, and slamming doors that lasted throughout the night.
The haunting of the little brick house lasted for two years, until a skeptical young man volunteered to dispel the rumors. Armed with only his two revolvers and a bottle of liquor to bolster his nerves, he spent the night alone in the house. After hours of waiting and probably one too many shots of courage, the man fell asleep. It was then that the chains began to rattle. Leaping up, he ran to the window in time to see two women dressed in white run off into the night. The man gave chase, but it was too late. They were gone.
The next morning the man set about questioning all those in the neighborhood. It was then that he learned the reason behind the so-called “haunting.”
On the property of the small brick house sat a well — the only well within quite some distance. The neighbors were allowed to drink from the well, but only when the house was empty. This gave them reason enough to create a ghost and keep the legend alive for years.
Lesser-known stories like this, while now just footnotes in the city’s history, show that behind all the great myths and legends of Charleston, there remains a simple truth that is often stranger than fiction. The ghosts you’ve been warned about are really your neighbors. The tales of monsters you hear just serve to hide the fact that the world is frightening enough on its own. And reality is more bizarre than you can imagine.
The legend goes that Julia Legare was buried alive. Married to plantation owner John Berwick Legare, Julia split her time between Charleston and Edisto Island.
“They were cotton planters and they resided mainly in Charleston like all the other cotton planters on these islands,” says Dorothy “Dottie” Thomas, a local historian and tour guide on Edisto Island. “All the sea islands were like that. The families would live in the city part of the year and then they had their plantations out on these sea islands.”
While she was staying on the island, Julia became ill and fell into a coma. Some versions of the story go so far as to specify that she contracted diphtheria, a bacterial infection that can cause inflammation of the nerves and paralysis. Believed to be dead, Julia was placed in the Legare family mausoleum at the Presbyterian Church of Edisto Island around 1852.
The legend continues years later following the death of another family member. The crypt was reopened to find the remains of Julia pressed against the door. Some say you can still see the scratch marks left in the stone walls of the mausoleum from where Julia tried to claw her way out of her own grave. From that point on, the entrance to the crypt would never stay sealed. Those who were in charge of maintaining the cemetery returned time and time again only to find the mausoleum door open. Finally, the door was removed altogether in an attempt to appease Julia’s spirit, which is said to haunt the crypt to this day. It’s a tragic story and clearly one that resonates with many visitors who travel to Edisto Island to see the cemetery.
Tucked behind a small field of graves at the Presbyterian Church of Edisto Island sits the Legare family mausoleum. At first glance, it seems too cramped to serve any real purpose until you realize the dead need very little elbow room. A flimsy set of wooden bars have been nailed in place at the front of the crypt to dissuade anyone from entering, but just inside the entrance is evidence of those who have come to pay their respects to the ghost of Julia Legare. Handwritten notes bearing the message “God loves you” and “Dear Julia” sit next to a small mason jar of wilted flowers. These are just some of the offerings left behind by tourists who feel some deep connection to a young woman who died more than 150 years ago for unknown reasons. In the past, some visitors have taken things a bit further by reenacting the legend of Julia’s grisly death in the mausoleum.
“Some folks have blown it out of proportion, unfortunately, about the ghost that resides in the Legare mausoleum,” says Thomas. “People do come down and they play act, and they act out the story, which we in the church do not really like because we feel like that’s the wrong thing to do in a graveyard. People do leave notes and flowers, shells, all sorts of things in there.”
Just a mile down the road from the church at the E-Z Shop convenience store on Highway 174, no one has ever heard the legend of Julia Legare. Ask around about ghosts and a young girl buried alive and you’ll just get a few blank stares and uncomfortable smiles. While the legend may have connected with visitors from all over, it isn’t a part of the local lore of Edisto.
“I heard things about stories and places on the island growing up, but I never heard of Julia Legare,” says Thomas. “Of course, they say that her spirit is still in there. I don’t know where it came from. I grew up on Edisto Island, and I never heard it when I was a child. It was only in these later years that I’ve heard the ghost story of that mausoleum.”
According to Thomas, most of the people who take part in her tours ask about the Spanish moss and live oaks that populate the island’s landscape. The retired school teacher says they’re more curious about how the tides roll in and out off the coast then they are of hundred-year-old ghosts.
“Most people I take on the tours really aren’t interested in the ghost stories. I just stick to the facts I know,” she says. “The fact is Julia was buried there. Two years after she was buried, her four-year-old child passed away, and after he was buried, the door opened again mysteriously. Two years after the child died, her husband died. He was buried there, and the same thing happened, so they took the door off and sealed up the floor.”
While the mystery of the Legare family crypt may never be fully solved, it’s clear that the Presbyterian Church graveyard is haunted in a way, by those who visit the grave site of Julia Legare. For this group of dedicated mourners, it’s more important that she remains a spirit forever trapped in the family crypt, rather than a young mother who died without any available explanation.
Hundreds gathered outside the shop of Dr. William G. Trott in late June 1867 and they all demanded one thing: an end to the storm. For four straight days, a dark gale plagued the city. Heavy winds and rain pounded the coast, houses were unroofed, chimneys blown down, and trees pulled up by their roots. Local papers reported that it was the heaviest rainfall in 50 years.
“Day after day and night after night have the floods descended until patience has been exhausted and forbearance has ceased to be a virtue. The oldest inhabitant does not remember a more continued spell of wet weather,” wrote the Charleston Daily News.
As the streets filled with water and the clouds refused to part, the citizens of Charleston began to look for any way to stop the rain, and they believed the answer was hidden in Dr. Trott’s apothecary at the corner of King and Broad Street.
Trott’s shop had long housed a collection of frogs, sea horses, and whatever strange specimens the doctor could get his hands on. As the storm battered the city, rumor spread that Trott had captured a mermaid that washed ashore and he was holding it captive to display among the other oddities in his shop. Residents believed that this was what had brought such a devastating storm to the city, and unless the mermaid was released, Charleston would sink into the ocean. On that day in 1867, a crowd of newly freed slaves flocked to Trott’s shop and demanded that the creature be returned to the sea.
According to the Daily News, “At one time, over 500 people were present, and murmurs of indignation, both long and loud, were uttered against the hapless apothecary.”
Some believed the mermaid had a baby that remained at sea and the rain would continue to fall until the creature was allowed to return to her child. An interview conducted by writer and folklorist John Bennett and reprinted in the book African-Atlantic Cultures and the South Carolina Lowcountry by Ras Michael Brown provides one woman’s firsthand account of that day and the city’s efforts to free whatever Trott had locked away in his cellar.
“The people find out about this here mermaid, and they files complaints with the city, and the city force Dr. Trott to put that mermaid back,” said Araminta Tucker, who Bennett described as an aged, reputable, and eminently respectable Charleston nurse. “And if he ain’t put that mermaid back in the sea and stop that continual rain, they going fine him, and if he ain’t pay the fine, they going send him up the road. Yes sir, they going send him up to jail.”
For Brown, this account of the incident tells an even more important tale of the collective actions of these newly freed slaves following the end of the American Civil War.
“Araminta Tucker’s story emphasized that the people rose because of the mermaid, and the city acted at the behest of the African-descended community to ensure the release of the mermaid and the end of public crisis,” writes Brown, an associate professor of history and African studies at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
According to Brown, while the incident didn’t address a particular political or economic injustice, the story of the mermaid represents an early example of African-descended people rising up, demanding a response, and getting what they asked for. Although the newspaper’s account of the Mermaid Incident makes no mention of any acts of violence or destruction, later retellings would refer to the event as the “Mermaid Riots.” For Brown, this shows that the retellings of the story were just as much about political power as the event itself.
“For people of African descent, especially with a strong Central African, more specifically Congo background, the mermaids are representations of forms of nature spirits. These nature spirits, among many things, are political symbols,” says Brown. “They often embody a lot of meaning within the political cultures of not only Congo societies, but related societies in the diaspora. We would tend to look at this and classify it as folklore or as Bennett does, as a superstition or something like that, but it’s culture.”
According to Brown, the point of the tale of the Charleston mermaid is to serve as a critique of enslavement, but the story also shows how supernatural legends allow cultures to address larger issues. The story taps into the power of political action and the idea that there will be a reckoning when freedom is denied.
“The ways that people in the past talked about, remembered, and then did something, made statements and actions about the world around them, they often did it in cultural tropes. The idea of centering a social protest around a mermaid doesn’t make sense to us, I suppose, but it made perfect sense back then because that was connected to an older and a wider African-based world view,” he says. “We do oftentimes rely on or need to talk about things in spiritual terms, where we translate very immediate, everyday concerns into a spiritual idiom because it’s a way of conveying the power of those concerns that maybe otherwise people would ignore.”
As the legends of Julia Legare and the Mermaid Incident show, the importance of myth is always there, even when stories fade into obscurity. Whether it is the need to believe in the spirit of a young woman trapped in a crypt or an uprising to free a mermaid, we are never quite finished with these stories. And they’re not finished with us.
“These things that are forgotten or seemingly forgotten and really buried, they’re lurking,” says Brown. “They’re still around, and maybe by bringing these things up, people will talk about them again. These are things that are a part of our collective past, and it’s ennobling to re-remember them. We’re really good at that.”
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