Charleston is famous for haunted places, and quite a few people I have known all my life firmly believe that they have ghosts with a variety of behaviors in their houses. On one block of Church Street there are three notable ghosts. There is “the man on the stairs” at 71 Church Street, who supposedly wanders up and down the stairs of the house and has been heard by different families who live there so many times that they actually gave him the name “Mr. Huger”. Next door at 73 Church, Dr. Thomas Dale and his children are said to reappear from time to time, which is quite a feat considering they lived in the 1750’s. And down the block at 59 Church, “the ghost of the whistling doctor” probably does cause a stir, because the Preservation Society plaque explaining the story has the name wrong. The doctor’s name was Joseph Brown Ladd, who rented a room in the house after the Revolution and was known for whistling while he walked. He was involved in a duel in 1786 and was mortally wounded and brought back to his room, where he died. The words on the plaque are copied verbatim from a newspaper story written years ago by Jack Leland, a wonderful man who did have a cocktail occasionally and may well have had his vision blurred when he typed the script, so it came out Joseph Ladd Brown. No wonder the doctor’s ghost is still whistling – he’s ticked off that they can’t get his name right!
Speaking of tales told incorrectly, the most painful to hear is the use of the word “haint” for ghosts and referring to sky-blue piazza ceilings as colors meant to ward them off. The term “hant” is an old Gullah word referring to a ghostly presence, not “haint”. And from the Gullah traditions, one of the most menacing hants was the “Plat-eye”, a ghost who entered peoples’ bodies and made them do awful things. The Plat-eye’s only weakness was that it could not cross over water, and thus, many houses in the remote areas around Charleston long featured sea-blue paint around door and window frames.
So, there may well be a number of ghosts lingering in and around old Charleston houses, but they ain’t haints, and the sky-blue ceilings are simply a pleasing color scheme that have nothing to do with haunted places.
The “single house” construction that dominates historic Charleston features houses one room wide that typically stand very close to each other. This creates a common situation that is seen in quite a few locations in the city, where the side piazza is only a short distance from the windows of the house next door.
In north-south situations such as 86-94 Church Street, the piazzas are all on the south side, where the door that opens into the house leads to a hall in which there is a staircase. In these narrow halls, the north-running stair turns halfway on a landing and proceeds south again to the second floor, and usually the landing is lighted by a northside window.
From this landing window, overlooking the open expanse of the piazza next door, there is a natural tendency to linger and look over at what’s going on at the neighbor’s house. Traditionally, Charlestonians would spend many hours on the piazzas on pleasant days – socializing, relaxing, or enjoying time with family.
This made it very easy for overly-inquiring minds to eavesdrop on family secrets, arguments, or romantic interludes that were not meant for the public, and tarnish the city’s reputation for politeness. So, there developed the saying “northside manners”, in which it was considered proper behavior to refrain from listening or viewing from that north staircase window on the south piazza privacy next door.
I do remember in our “side hall” single house on Legare Street, the stair configuration was somewhat different, but the tempting northside windows were there, overlooking the southside piazza at number 10. With seven children in our family who were accustomed to passing information up and down the four-story house at the top of our lungs, it couldn’t have been much fun for those adults trying to have a peaceful cocktail under our watchful eyes and ears.
So I remind myself and others that, should they linger overlooking a southside piazza, please remember your northside manners.
Wandering historic Charleston along East Bay Street just south of the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon is a delightful location that brings real character to the term “nooks and crannies”. It’s called the W. Hampton Brand Gallery, but don’t let the name make you think it’s only that, because although confined to tiny interior and courtyard of a narrow colonial building, there is an abundance of curiosities and memorabilia that compels visitors to linger. The gallery is operated by artist and South Carolina native W. Hampton Brand, who is usually seated on the sidewalk in front, busily crafting oil images with his paint brush and easel.
Hampton will paint on canvas, but the some of his most interesting works are done on historic bricks, glass, and slate, depicting such landmarks as Rainbow Row, the Old Exchange, and various classic wrought iron gates such as the Sword Gate. Hampton is one of those classically-untrained artists who took up painting when he was a kid, and had a knack for it, as well as a passion for history. His collection of historic bottles, masonry and other implements is an excellent reminder of the simple materials that were so essential to life in the colonial city. And by using these surfaces as the basis for much of his art work, Hampton follows in the footsteps of Charleston’s classic artisans by making those simple materials into things of beauty.
The gallery is in a structure that itself is one of the most unusual in Charleston. Built in the 18th century as adjoining commercial enterprises originally called Champney’s Row, it was constructed small and narrow to conform to city laws. Going back to the 1690’s, early Charles Town was protected along the waterfront by a brick barrier called “the curtain line”. To the east of the curtain line were wharves, and to the west the street that became known as East Bay, and the only passage between was through protected openings under guard. Fearing attack from pirates or other enemies who might land at he wharves and slip into the city, buildings allowed along the curtain line were restricted in size so that they could easily be pulled down in the event of invasion. Thus Hampton’s little shop is among the skinniest structures in town. To compensate for the possibility that the old shop might be ripped down, there is a massive underground cellar area that was apparently created to dump everything into.
After the Revolution, the Champney family sold the premises to the Coates family, and the adjoining sections have been known as Coates’ Row ever since. Home to a long series of taverns, the underground areas became very useful as wine cellars over the years, and two doors down at The Tavern, Gary Dow operates the oldest liquor-dispensing location in America, but more on that in another post.
Steam-powered fire engines were not used in Charleston until more than 40 years after Robert Fulton made the technology possible. For most of the city’s history, the “engines” were little more than pumps on wheels that were pulled by hand or by horse through the city to water wells dug in the streets. A variety of early pumping methods included the capstan barrel, with holes on six or eight sides to connect horse-drawn poles that would spin the device and create hydraulic pressure.
The 1860’s brought the steam engine into prominence, as companies in the northeast created a variety of contraptions that used steam pressure for suction and spray. Some of these engines, fulled loaded with boilders, pans, gauges, and hoses, weighed more than five tons, so what draft animals pull through the streets of Charleston pales in comparison.
After the first three city-wide fire houses were built in 1887, fires and heated water were constantly kept in separate non-mobile boilers for transfer to the engines to aid in rapid response to alarms, so that time was not wasted in waiting for the pressure to build. With successful digging of artesian wells in the city by the late 1870’s, a crude system of pressured water became available with mains and hydrants.
Steam engines pulled by horse were still in use into the 20th century, and the first motor-driven fire truck was purchased in 1912. Today, the old steamer in the picture stands inside the main fire house at 262 Meeting Street, as a reminder of the rustic nature of fire-fighting that served the city for so many years.
Coastal South Carolina was once famous for its ancient forests that produced a thriving timber industry. Vast acres of oak, pine and cypress were cut for great ships and grand houses that were virtually impervious to rot and termites. Timber growing in natural settings typically takes much longer to mature, and many old-growth trees near Charleston dated in the hundreds of years, developing tight growth rings that assures durability. Trees such as the long-leaf pine were harvested in huge numbers, and cut in timber mills and sawpits all over Charleston for centuries.
Most of local wood-producing establishments where built along the western bank of Charleston’s peninsula, where the timber barges would bring logs from up the Ashley River. Early mills used wind power to saw the huge trunks that were often hundreds of years old, and tides were impounded in expansive mill ponds to provide water power until steam took hold in the 1820’s. For many years, timber exports rivaled rice and cotton as one of Charleston’s most lucrative industries, and among the very successful enterprises was the Anderson Lumber Company at the West end of Broad Street.
One of the Anderson company’s most notable projects was construction of houses on Sullivan’s Island in the early 1900’s, after the new island railway had opened up areas north of Atlanticville. One such structure was built for the Anderson family near tram station 27 – a gabled-two story sturdily constructed from the heart of the old-growth pine. Shortly after it was finished, the island was hit by a severe hurricane in 1911, and both family members and neighbors gathered inside the house as the swirling waters rose to dangerous levels all over the island. Many houses were completely swept away, but the Anderson house proved a lifesaver from the flood, and was christened “The Ark” – a name that it has been famous for ever since.
In the early 18th century, an English privateer named Robert Jenkins was attacking merchant ships in the Caribbean and stealing cargo when he was captured by the Spanish navy, which punished him by cutting off his ear. The English used this as an excuse to declare war on Spain, and in 1739, “The War of Jenkins’ Ear” began. In Charles Town, planter George Lucas had only recently emigrated from Antigua, and was ordered by the British crown to return to his West Indies military post, leaving his teen-aged daughter Eliza in charge of 6800-acre Wappoo Plantation.
The battles pitting England against Spain and her ally France would spill over for years into a series of wars that would not end until 1763, effectively cutting off considerable trade and goods from West Indies ports blockaded by British ships. Meanwhile, young Eliza, who was well-educated and strong-willed, improved the laborious method of processing the indigofera tinctoria plant into colorful dyes. What was simply known as indigo is a small, evergreen shrub that was soaked, crushed, mixed, boiled, and strained to create a liquid that colored garments and cloth. Dried into cakes, it could easily be shipped and reconstituted with water. Eliza’s innovation was to put all the individual aspects of production into a continuous, step-by-step process, and prompted many other planters to turn to this as a cash crop.
The timing was impeccable, as the wars cut off competing dye-producing ports in the Caribbean, and the British government created tariff protecting South Carolina indigo from non-empire producers. As a result, Eliza and other indigo growers made massive fortunes in a relatively short period of time, and Charles Town would become one of the wealthiest cities in America. She would go down in history as one of South Carolina’s most accomplished women, and was mother to US Constitution signer Charles Cotesworth Pinckney.
A legacy of individual greatness and provincial wealth and power that was all the result of poor old Robert Jenkins’ ear.
A British cannonball from the Revolutionary War was recently found when a tree was removed from the backyard of a house on Broad Street in Charleston. Local ordnance expert Keith Purdy believes it was fired into the city during the Siege of Charleston by English forces in the Spring of 1780.
There were two British cannon batteries firing into the city from earthworks just across the Ashley River during the siege, and could have easily lobbed the 22-pound solid shot from that distance to Broad Street. The size of the ball is odd, considering most cannons of that period used standard size and weight projectiles (6, 12, 18, 24, 32 and 42 pound), but documentation also shows that the British had a howitzer that could have handled this 5 ½ inch diameter ball.
The iron in this ball is actually harder than ordnance that has been salvaged from the War Between the States, authenticates its use during the Revolution. It looks pretty good considering it has been buried for 232 years.
Shore birds of many species begin to gather along the South Carolina coast in late Spring to bring in a new generation of familiar wings. Up in protected areas such as the Cape Romain Wildlife Refuge, tens of thousands of pelicans, egrets, herons, terns, ibis, oyster catchers, and gulls will descend on barrier island dunes, grasses and beaches to make nests and lay eggs.
When young birds hatch, they are either altricial – which initially have no feathers, or precocial – where they emerge from eggs already feathered. Altricial young such as pelicans can easily burn up in the sun without the protective plumage, so mating parents split duties, as one sits on the nest covering the young, while the other wings away in search of food. Pelican nests are built from marsh grasses to hold the large young that typically hatch in pairs.
Certain precocial birds, such as royal terns, nest in shallow sand depressions above the high water mark, and although the little ones can’t fly for several weeks, they can move in mass numbers very quickly on tiny wobbling legs. Terns nest in packs known as creches as a means of best defense against predators, and hovering parents will dive on nosy humans if they get too close.
Young of all species come struggling out from eggs without much meat on their bones and often quite ugly at first, But as feathers grow and baby birds beef up on bits of fish brought back by adult birds, their features quickly turn elegant. Pelicans grow big with wide wing spans, herons and egrets sprout long, graceful legs, terns and ibis develop interesting colors, crowns and decurved beaks, and all will be in the air by mid-Summer.
The Magnolia Grandiflora is a long-time symbol of the South’s natural beauty, and blooms beautifully with its massive cream-white flowers from April through July. This magnificent tree is named for French botanist Pierre Magnol, who studied the species more than 300 hundred years ago. Magnol and other scientists concluded that the Magnolia family is the oldest blooming species in the world, having existed more than 100 million years. The tree is so old that it predates the honey bee, and was pollinated by beetles originally.
Having survived for so many eons, the species is notable for its healthy parts, which have been used for a variety of ailments since ancient times, and proved helpful for the south during the War Between the States.
The Federal blockade of Southern ports that began in 1861 cut off military supplies as well as medicines that the people of South Carolina desperately needed. With soldiers and civilians suffering and dying, some remedy for wounds, fevers, and ills was crucial, and ended up coming from a natural source. Charleston doctor Francis Peyre Porcher was, like many in his day, a naturalist as well as a man of medicine. He used his considerable knowledge of botany to publish a 600-page book of natural remedies in 1863 called Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests.
Countless lives were saved by the thousands of natural remedies spelled out in Porcher’s book, including concoctions made from the Magnolia flowers, cones, seeds, bark, leaves and roots. The Magnolia parts were ground into powders, mixed with brandy, or sun-dried and pickled to help overcome respiratory and nerve issues, joint pain and swelling, nausea and eye inflammation, as well as infections and fevers.
With such a wealth of herbal remedies available today, the Magnolia is no longer in much demand as a healing source, but as a thing of beauty and a living organism that has persevered, the Grandiflora is an enduring Southern symbol
This June will mark the centennial of famed ironsmith Philip Simmons’ birth in 1912 on Daniel’s Island. Mr. Simmons went to work at a Calhoun Street blacksmith shop at age thirteen, learning to fix wheels and axles of wagons and carts, pounding iron by hammer on anvil each day in the heat of coal furnaces. He was fascinated by the decorative iron work that had graced old Charleston since colonial times, and by his twenties began to fashion his own creations as ornamental gate work. His first decorative gate made in Charleston stands in Stoll’s Alley today, what he called his “billboard gate”, which he used to show people what kind of work he could do.
Ever-so-slowly, his clientele increased, and the reputation of his work spread. From his little shed on Drake Street in the East Side, Mr. Simmons diligently pounded away, and won as many accolades for his work as he did for a kind, gentle disposition. I got to know Mr. Simmons very well in his later years when I did programs for a local television station, and among the many shows I did on him was a 1998 documentary called “Philip Simmons –Fire and Iron.” The last show I did with Mr. Simmons was in 2005 as part of my “Carolina Explore” series with Comcast. He was well over 90 at the time, but still banged away on the molten iron as an instructor at the American College of Building Arts inside the old District Jail on Magazine Street.
Never bitter over his poor background and the fact that he descended from slaves, always gracious in thanking wealthier patrons who bought his work for generations, Philip Simmons was a man who transcended class and racial differences in Charleston and proved throughout his brilliant career that creative genius can come from an inner passion and joy, glowing like the sparks that framed his determined face for more than ninety years.