The Ghosts of Georgetown County

By  |  February 27, 2020
“Live oak tree killed by saltwater intrusion” (2018), by Justin Cook “Live oak tree killed by saltwater intrusion” (2018), by Justin Cook

T

he shoreline was nearly empty. My father and I had passed the last houses and were approaching the point where the dunes end at the southern inlet. It’s a walk we still take frequently each summer, when we reunite with our family for a week at South Carolina’s Litchfield Beach.

I remember this particular time, five years ago now, because I had been thinking of someone I loved who had recently left me—left me in a way that was courteous and banal but no less painful for being so ordinary. I was so distressed that I had to confess my anguish to my father. I did so in the choked, throttled manner that is the only way I have ever been able to admit grief to anyone. I told him that it was hard for me to be back here without her.

“You know,” my father replied, “this place is filled with ghosts.” I was startled because I had reached for that same supernatural metaphor earlier that day, in a letter I wrote to her but never sent. I had written that I felt like I was resurrecting old ghosts.

I remember that we came across a piece of wooden wreckage and wondered about its origins. My father said it seemed like we were due for one of those great hurricanes that periodically wipe the beach clean. If a deadly storm was coming, local legend has it that we would be warned. The story goes that a ghost clad in gray stalks the beach in advance of every major hurricane, warning passersby. Those who heed the Gray Man’s warning are spared, and all those who don’t, perish.

The history of this part of South Carolina is often told in reference to the great storms that reshaped the coastline and the lives of its inhabitants. Any local historian worth their salt can rattle off the dates of the major hurricanes: 1822, 1893, 1954, 1989. As the most immediate forces remaking local history, these storms are second only to the great wars of each of the past three centuries: World Wars I and II, the Civil War, and the American Revolution.

Thinking this way, everything dissolves. What significance could my grief or anyone else’s have in the face of the brute movements of nature, and the even more brutal motion of human history? I know that from a sober point of view I consist only of dust blown into shape by these currents, and to that dust I’ll return. If only that knowledge could keep me from grieving ordinary losses, from feeling ordinary pain.

My father and I weren’t thinking of history that day, for better or worse. We were thinking of the realms of feeling and inner life that history cannot touch. We saw no Gray Man on the beach; we received no warning. We would be stuck with our ghosts until there came a storm strong enough to sweep our very bodies from the earth.

 

It’s no surprise that my father and I were both thinking of ghosts that day. It has long been claimed that the South Carolina coast is haunted. “From Caesars Head to Charleston, belief in spells and conjures still prevails,” reads the Works Projects Administration guide to South Carolina, published in 1941. Georgetown County, which includes Litchfield and its neighboring beaches, has more recently been declared “the most haunted place in the South.” This distinction is probably not apparent to anyone just passing through on their way to Myrtle Beach or Charleston. But if one looks a little more closely at the eighteenth-century homes just off the Georgetown harbor, flashes of whimsy reveal a lingering superstition: Porch ceilings and shutters are painted “haint blue” to ward off restless spirits, and dead trees are adorned with bottles to capture phantoms in the night. These particular practices are appropriations of a complex, hybrid cosmology that the region’s enslaved people developed in response to conditions they faced in bondage; their continued belief in “haints,” the ghosts who played an important role in African spiritual practices, may have conditioned a more generalized proclivity among both blacks and whites in Georgetown to accept the supernatural in general and ghosts in particular.

Spend enough time in the area and you’ll begin to hear the legends themselves. The Gray Man is said to be the ghost of someone who perished in 1822, so eager to reunite with his fiancée that he steered his horse through the treacherous marshland that separates Georgetown’s beautiful Pawleys Island from the mainland, and became mired in quicksand. His lover, inconsolable, paced up and down the beach in anguish. She finally encountered her departed on a distant part of the shore, shrouded in mist. Before his gray figure disappeared into the fog, he said only that she must flee the island. Unnerved, the woman ran back to tell her family of the encounter. Believing her to be hysterical, they soon left the island to take her to a doctor. While they were gone, a hurricane ravaged the coast, destroying every single home but theirs. 

The Gray Man is far from the only thwarted lover who haunts Georgetown County. In the mid-nineteenth century, a rice planter’s daughter named Alice Flagg was widely regarded as the most beautiful young woman in the area’s burgeoning aristocracy. The half century prior to the Civil War saw a small number of families ruthlessly consolidate land along the Waccamaw River, forcing thousands of enslaved people to cultivate enormous quantities of rice along the river’s fertile lowlands. By 1840, the county was growing about half of all rice produced nationwide. Young women like Alice were expected to use marriage to expand their families’ lucrative holdings.

But at sixteen, Alice fell in love with a logger. The two kept their courtship a secret, knowing it would never be approved. Before Alice was shipped off to a finishing school in Charleston, her lover gave her a wedding ring. Alice kept the ring on a chain around her neck, so it touched her heart beneath her clothing, out of sight. She needed this symbol of their ultimate reunion to carry her through their time apart.

This proved to be wishful thinking: In Charleston, Alice became ill with a high fever and delirium that kept her bedridden. School officials sent for her brother, a doctor, who arrived by carriage to return her to their plantation home. Alice by this point was so ill that she could no longer speak. As the carriage thundered north, Alice’s brother noticed her grasping for an object at her chest. Opening her palm and discovering the ring, he knew the truth instantly. Furious, he ripped the chain from her neck and threw it into the river. Alice suddenly gasped for her final breaths, dying before they made it home. She was buried by her family in the nearby All Saints Cemetery. Deeply ashamed of their daughter’s ignominy, the family marked the grave with nothing but her first name.

The legend holds that Alice can be seen under cover of darkness, stalking the area in search of her lost ring. When I was a kid, we would sometimes search for Alice at dusk. I remember my uncle rounding up me, my brother, and my cousins from the beach and piling us into the car for a trip to All Saints. We emerged from the car into perfect stillness and total darkness, with only a flashlight to illuminate the Spanish moss–adorned live oaks standing guard between irregular rows of centuries-old tombstones. When we neared Alice’s grave, we imagined we could tell the presence of a restless spirit by the way the grass surrounding the grave was ravaged, with sickly wisps clinging to the disturbed earth. My uncle would challenge us to circle the grave thirteen times to conjure Alice’s spirit. One of my braver cousins would oblige, initiating a solemn countdown. On the thirteenth turn, my uncle might cut the flashlight, and the exhilarated screams of children would puncture the summer night. We knew that Alice would come looking for something we could not offer.

 

Despite the ruthless ambition that the planter elite used to discipline even their own daughters, the defeat of slavery was the defeat of their power. By the twentieth century, their lands fell into the hands of northern industrialists like Archer Huntington, who would convert them first into personal retreats and later into nature and cultural preserves and sites of mass tourism. Thus, history has forgotten the names of most of the aristocrats who haunt the land along the Waccamaw.

There is one exception: Theodosia Burr Alston lived on a Georgetown plantation for more than a decade before she boarded a schooner called The Patriot on the morning of December 31, 1812. The Patriot was bound for New York to reunite Theodosia with her father, former vice president Aaron Burr. Burr’s fortunes had tumbled after he killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804; facing unrelated charges for treason a few years later, he had fled the country. His daughter, meanwhile, had suffered continuous illness and isolation, both physical and mental, after marrying a prominent heir to a rice fortune and moving to his plantation. “Something whispers to me that my end approaches,” she wrote in an unmailed letter in 1805. “I am now standing on the brink of eternity.”

By 1812, she felt that only a reunion with her father could save her. The British navy was blockading the Atlantic Coast, but Theodosia carried a letter from her husband, who had just been elected South Carolina’s governor, to ensure her safe passage. She was not yet thirty years old when she departed from the Georgetown harbor with her maid, a physician, and a half dozen crew members. The boat and those it carried were never heard from again.

While Burr insisted that his daughter perished at sea—“were she alive, all the prisons in the world could not keep her from her father,” he declared—the press went wild with alternative theories: that Theodosia became a pirate’s mistress in Bermuda, or married an American Indian after finally coming ashore in Texas. Over the course of more than half a century, various pirates made deathbed confessions claiming that it was they who knew Theodosia in her final living moments. In 1878, the New York Times reported an account from a “hard, rough old salt” facing death in a Michigan poorhouse: Theodosia had walked the plank “clad in pure white garments,” with a Bible in hand. “Calm and composed,” she looked toward heaven as she took the plunge, and “fell and sank without a murmur or a sigh.”

The only physical evidence of what might have happened to Theodosia was uncovered in Nags Head, North Carolina, in 1869. A vacationing doctor was called on to care for an aging widow in a cobweb-covered beachside shack. Her husband had been a scavenger who gathered shipwrecked items that washed onto shore. In lieu of payment, the widow offered the doctor one of those items: a portrait of a beautiful young woman that hung on her wall. It is said that Theodosia’s ghost wanders up and down the beach in search of this self-portrait, which she planned to give her father as a reunion gift. Three hundred miles south, on the Georgetown harbor, Theodosia is also believed to periodically retrace her last steps on earth, replaying those final, decisive moments that separated her from her beloved father forever.

 

When my father told me that the beach was full of ghosts, he had in mind the final passage from Mutiny on the Bounty: “. . . suddenly the place was full of ghosts—shadows of men alive and dead—my own among them.” If Georgetown County’s ghost stories resonated with us, it was because we saw our own ghosts among them. That day on the beach, while I was thinking of someone I lost, my father was thinking of his late mother, my Grandma Jean. She cast a long shadow over these family reunions. At seventeen she declared that she loved the South Carolina coast more than any other place in the world. “I hope that I’ll be able to go every summer from now on,” she wrote then. She did, and we still do.

More than a decade after her death, and shortly before that walk on the beach, my father and his brother told me a story I had never heard before. When Jean was sixteen, during her junior year of high school, she spent a weekend in Charleston for the Citadel’s “Commencement Hop” in May 1941. She fell in love with a young man there. Within nine months, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the young man was enlisted to become a pilot. Shortly after that, he was killed in a training accident. 

My grandmother never spoke of any of this. Her sons pieced the story together from a box of mementos they found in the back of her closet after her death. These include photos of Jean arm in arm with a young man in uniform, standing in front of her parents’ house in Columbia. The box also contained the uniform itself. There are additional photographs of the young man alone, blond and beaming, that he likely sent to Jean after he enlisted, including a photograph of him beside a Corsair fighter plane. “I love you, darling,” reads the back of another photo. 

We know that Jean lost this man because, after the war, she married a different man, my grandfather. We know that losing this man meant something to her because she was extremely selective and deliberate when it came to holding on to keepsakes from the past. Everything else appeared in carefully curated scrapbooks depicting the course of her life as we knew it, and there were no other collections of photographs or any other items memorializing anyone outside of her family.

It was unlike Grandma Jean to cling to past loves. When my father and his brother broke up with girlfriends, she always insisted that they destroy every memento they had from the romance in question, lest it poison their future relationships. “That’s what she did,” my father told me recently. “She destroyed everything except for what she just could not let go of.”

For both my father and uncle, the discovery cast their childhoods in a new light. For my uncle it explained a certain distance Jean maintained in all matters of love and affection, which he interpreted as a bitterness or resignation that she had lost the only person she felt she could ever truly love. My father saw the ghost of Jean’s first love in a different way. When he told his parents he wanted to become a pilot, my grandfather, who grew up poor and believed strongly in thrift, told him that when he had his own money he could learn how to fly. After all, he was only fourteen, and while the family was comfortable, they weren’t wealthy. But Jean encouraged him, and within a week she began driving him to the airport to begin lessons. (She probably also paid for the lessons herself.) Soon, she was doing so every week, and waiting patiently for each lesson to finish. My father sees this now as a tribute to the pilot she lost. 

 

We the living are both subjects of history and its inheritors. It comes to us in fragments, like wooden planks from Theodosia’s shattered Patriot, washing onto shore. From those fragments we can intuit both the structure of history and its failure to deliver those before us to peaceful waters, ports of call where they might have found safety, serenity, and resolution. Legends, ghost stories—these can dramatize history’s failure, making a lived experience of the broken past legible. If, like Theodosia’s Patriot, history appears to us only after it has discarded the humanity it bore, then imaginative acts might be required to resurrect those lives in a way that restores their humanity, the inner conflicts and desires that history had no use for.

The ghosts of Georgetown seem to be results of these imaginative acts, the most extreme of which is perhaps the legend of Alice. There is no doubt that a young woman named Alice Flagg lived from 1833 to 1849. Many of the other details of her story, however, do not stand up to close scrutiny. The legend also does not appear to have been circulated in writing or even verbally before the late 1940s. This is especially vexing given that an author of the WPA’s 1941 guide to South Carolina, Genevieve Willcox Chandler, had actually lived since childhood in what was once the Flagg family home. Chandler was an avid collector of folklore, and she did write about the Gray Man and other local legends for the state guide. So why didn’t she mention the ghost that was said to haunt her own house?

It was because, she revealed to historian Charles Joyner in 1978, her older brother had made it up. Four children growing up in the sleepy seaside town of Murrells Inlet needed something to keep them entertained—and something to scare their out-of-town cousins—so they created a ghost to haunt their antebellum home. The solemn gravestone in All Saints—the one that reads only alice—proved an irresistible prop for the story. Alice herself is actually buried in a different Flagg family plot; the grave in All Saints was more likely intended for her brother’s daughter, who shared her first name.

The legend appears to have made the leap from family tall tale to local lore in the 1940s, when Julian Stevenson Bolick was researching a book on the Waccamaw plantations. He relayed the legend in that book, as well as a collection of regional ghost stories ten years later. The books were popular among summer visitors to Pawleys Island and Litchfield Beach, including my family: I recently found one of Bolick’s books in my parents’ house, with an inscription indicating that it was a gift to my father and his brother from their aunt and uncle, when they were kids in the 1960s. 

What accounts for the resilience of this legend, despite its banal and seemingly ahistorical origins? It’s impossible to say for sure. There’s no denying that we live in a misogynist culture fascinated with frail, helpless women who die young, beautiful, and sick. But for my part I have always seen Alice’s ghostly resurrection as a cry of resistance by some inner life against a history that wanted to stamp it out entirely. The story might be made up, but at its core is a brutal truth about antebellum life along the Waccamaw: that social practices, including marriage, were aimed at the consolidation of planter wealth, the rush for the spoils of fertile Lowcountry land and forced black labor. For a woman of Alice Flagg’s stature, an attempt to opt out of this arrangement was an attempt to opt out of history. The legend pits one woman’s inner life and desires against the historical current that she was born into. In doing so it rescues some element of humanity from the brute motion of history. (It should be said that the humanity of enslaved people, who constituted ninety percent of the region’s antebellum population, hardly ever appears in the stories passed down by white folklorists.)

Of course, while all this might tell us something valuable about what it may have been like to live through history as a woman like Alice, it tells us little about the interiority of the actual Alice Flagg, who died at fifteen of causes now unknown.

 

As with Alice’s story, when I took my own look back at the artifacts said to document Grandma Jean’s lost love, I found a more enigmatic historical truth. There are three glossy portraits, perhaps taken by a U.S. Army photographer, and seven snapshots taken outdoors over the course of the man’s service. The infantry patch on his uniform suggests he didn’t fly the Corsair, a Navy aircraft, though he poses next to it in one of the photos. In fact there’s no evidence to suggest he was a pilot at all. The photos that are dated indicate November 1943, August 1944, and November 1945. That means that he survived the war.

It’s also not clear that he met my grandmother at the Citadel in 1941. The mementos that she saved from that occasion were in a separate scrapbook, and a note she included there suggests that she went as the date of a different cadet. She also kept a number of wartime pictures of other men along with this scrapbook. A video interview that my uncle conducted with Grandma Jean in the mid-nineties shows why this might be: When she was a student at Mary Baldwin College during the war, she wrote letters to enlisted men she had known in high school, to try to keep their spirits up. Sometimes, she said, “they took it to mean I liked them a lot—it wasn’t exactly intended that way.

“You could get in a lot of trouble,” she added, chuckling.

The series of postcards from the mystery man—were they just one sign of Grandma Jean getting into trouble? In the video interviews, she certainly does not describe any loss suffered during the war, or any romance that survived it. On returning to Columbia after college in 1946, she says explicitly: “I hadn’t been in love or engaged or anything like that, so there was nobody in particular coming home for me.”

Back home, Grandma Jean began working—and speed dating. “There was a period where I dated nineteen different boys in three weeks’ time,” she told my uncle. “And your daddy was one of them.” What follows in the video is an account of a midcentury suburban life unremarkable to all but our family. There are trials and tribulations—illnesses, teenage rebellions, and the like—but no accounts of loss save for controlled but authentic expressions of grief to relay the deaths of her father and mother. The narrative is occasionally disturbed but overall unbroken.

Without a ruptured narrative, there can be no ghost story. And in this single box of photographs sits the one indication of a break in the otherwise complete narrative that my Grandma Jean crafted around her own life. But what is it, exactly, that was ruptured? We do not know whether this man’s love was reciprocated, or if he ever encountered Jean after returning to the United States, if he made it back at all. (Maybe, as we might say today, he ghosted her—or she him.) All we know is that these are the only tokens she kept from any lover who was not her husband.

Whatever relation she had to the man in the pictures, we know that she chose to leave something behind to acknowledge it, violating her own stated rule on such matters. Anything else we say about it, however, is a choice that we are making for her, not a choice she made for herself. It may be our prerogative to make sense of history through this kind of interpretation, but it doesn’t give us any closer access to what we really want: intimacy with the private inner life she lived, the part of her that was not swallowed up by a history demanding that her life have roundedness and resolution. By leaving us a ghost, Grandma Jean reminded us that she led a life rich enough to be haunted by a presence just outside of our field of vision. “The pain never went away totally for her,” my father wrote to me recently. “I’m as sure of that as I can be without knowing.”

Even so, there is plenty that we can know, if we take time to look. Our imaginations can get the better of us, and ghost stories can obscure as much as they clarify. Grandma Jean’s enthusiasm for aviation, for example, plainly did not come from any man. “All my life I have been interested in airplanes, and as soon as I get the time I am going to see about getting training and experience in flying,” she wrote at age seventeen. “I know women cannot be used in combat, but they can be used to ferry planes and fly the mail.” This is from a college essay intended to summarize her life up to that point. The earliest memory she recounts is her happiness upon receiving a silver toy airplane. She later concludes that she would be “completely happy” in the noncombat aviation roles available to women during the war.

Nobody knows exactly why this did not come to pass, but it surely had something to do with what was expected of a bourgeois young woman from South Carolina in the 1940s. My father and uncle agree that Grandma Jean was never “completely happy,” though she projected a satisfaction that was expected of her. In this she is no different from many of the rest of us. But when she saw that her youngest child shared her desire—and that his gender would not stand in its way—she committed, quietly, to his dream’s fulfillment.

My father has always insisted on this, and he never reduced his mother’s commitment to his dream to her enigmatic wartime correspondence with the mystery man. Nevertheless, he and I could not help but inject Grandma Jean’s passion into the tragic story that the photographs initially seemed to suggest. To think of the hole in her life as rooted in a single moment of devastating loss was more palatable than considering what seems to actually have happened: the lifelong, quiet deferral of a desire that history would never, ever allow her to pursue.

The conceit of ghost stories is that ruptured narratives—lives where the greatest desires are ultimately thwarted or frustrated—are unnatural, so unnatural that a supernatural element, the ghost, intervenes after death to pursue desires left unfulfilled in life. It is as if our notion of personal history refuses to accept irresolution, so we imagine our spirits breaking from our bodies to try, try again for fulfillment.

But the real fiction is not so much that these ruptures can haunt us, and haunt us so intensely that we can imagine breaking the bonds of our very bodies to resolve them. Instead it’s that a life broken and unresolved is the deviation rather than the norm—that most business on earth is finished, most longings satisfied, most intimacies realized. And when we discover this, we may find that even the places most familiar to us are filled with ghosts, our own among them.


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John Thomason is a writer from Charlotte, North Carolina, and the articles editor at Grist. He lives in New York City.

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