Meet three locals who have seen the paranormal side of our hometown.
There are spirits on these shores. Just listen. You’ll hear them…
Story by Barry Kaufman + Photography by Lisa Staff
When the sun casts its final golden beam across the meandering estuaries, and the last caw of the fish crow gives way to the choir of the bullfrogs, these spirits roam. They are part of the Lowcountry’s enduring mystique – the tantalizing questions behind each creak of an old door frame and every goosebump on your neck.
The Lowcountry is awash in spirits. Whether it’s the restless souls from the days when war raged on her fields, the bittersweet echoes of those who have moved on, or the enigmatic figures behind ancient secretive root magic, they’ve made their presence known time and time again. Read on to meet three locals who have had their own encounters with the Lowcountry’s spirits.
Close encounters of the haunted kind
The antebellum streets of Beaufort and the charming front porches that line each road are just part of the allure of this town, one that has defined it as the quintessential Southern town. And like anywhere in the South, Beaufort and its nearby islands are riddled with ghosts. There’s the ethereal lantern of the Land’s End Light. The impish specter of Gauche, the jester who haunts Craven’s Street’s iconic castle. The ghostly white figure of a woman carrying her child through The Chapel of Ease.
Kim Poovey has never seen any of these ghosts. But she has encountered their fellow spirits more times than she can recall.
“The ghosts kind of follow me around,” she said. A long-time ghost tour guide for CAPA’s annual spine-tingling tours and historic storyteller, Poovey is a fixture of Beaufort with her period-appropriate Victorian attire and her breathtaking skill with spinning a yarn.
And the tales she tells of her own close encounters are among the most chilling. There’s the time she was leading a group one moonlit night when a cheeky poltergeist tugged at the back of her flowing dress. The time she was volunteering as a docent at a historic Beaufort house, and a ghost slammed a drawer shut, narrowly missing her fingers. The angry spirits who followed her home one evening from the Naval Hospital, showing themselves first as elevator doors that opened themselves, then as a menacing sense of dread that ended only when she began to pray.
In each of these stories, she speaks of a sensation, never a vision.
“I don’t see ghosts, I only sense them,” she said, citing religious reasons. “I can go into a building and tell if it’s haunted. But I don’t talk to them.”
Her encounters grew more frequent when she moved into her current home, a circa-1890s Victorian cottage that exemplifies that classic haunted house.
“I’ve had a lot of experiences in that house,” she said. These range from eerie feelings of being watched to the heat mysteriously being cranked up all the way on a sweltering June day. Her cat Kramer has even found a few spectral playmates. “One of the former owners had died with 60 cats in the house. So we have ghost cats.”
The supernatural has been a constant for Poovey since she was a girl, from her first encounter with Edgar Allen Poe (his writing, not his ghost) in the fifth grade to her current role as a celebrated author and educator on local spirits. She may not see the spirits, but she knows when they’re there. And in a town like Beaufort, they’re always there.
Surrounded by happy spirits from Bluffton’s past
When you hear that someone has a ghost story, your immediate reaction is usually to brace yourself. After all, with few exceptions, every ghost story exists to shock, terrify and leave us sleeping with a few extra lights on.
So it’s easy to forget that behind every ghost is a living person who once walked this Earth. The ghosts in Babbie Guscio’s stories are all people, as much now as they were before they shuffled off their mortal coil. They’re the people that helped her fall in love with Bluffton when she arrived back in the 1970s.
“When people come here, they don’t realize how much different it is than it was,” she said. “We were living in the Wild West. We love it still and we loved all these wonderful people who made it what it was.”
Guscio opened The Store on Calhoun Street in 1978, in a Bluffton that was worlds apart from the modern Southern chic its Old Town represents now. Back then, the front porch at The Store was just about the best meeting place in town. She found a crew of regulars waiting when she first opened, and every day after.
“Luke Peeples would already be plopped on the front porch when I got there, and so was Thomas Niver and Hasell Heyward (his house is now the headquarters of the Bluffton Historical Society),” she said. “All of these men grew up together in Bluffton and were lifelong friends. It was like a gossip session with all these men around. Paul Pinckney was another one — even though he had a bit of a problem walking, he would walk over and join in the wonderful fun we were all having. They wanted to be buried like fence posts next to my store. They’re with me all the time.”
They may have moved on from this world, but the daily congregation of The Store’s front porch still meets with regularity. Guscio calls them her happy spirits, keeping an eye on her store and helping her when they can. Even beyond her front porch, her Bluffton is a paranormal state of mind, with the figures that loomed large in Bluffton’s lean days still a part of its community fabric.
“Mr. Albert Ullman was adorable,” she said. “We bought the lot across from my store from him and became fast friends. Mr. Ullman’s father had a small store on the lot that had been demolished by a rare tornado. The lot had been vacant for years until we purchased it. Mr. Ullman came over often from Savannah to visit and loved Bluffton very much. He too was full of fabulous tales he was so eager to share. He’s probably standing out on the corner right now.”
Then there’s Maybelle, at one time the one person at Scott’s Market you didn’t want to cross. “If she didn’t like somebody at Scott’s, she would push the cart right into them. It didn’t matter who it was. I’ve seen her do it,” said Guscio. The afterlife, it seems, has mellowed her somewhat. “Maybelle is here with me. It’s a blessing.”
But these spirits are more than just a memory. Like the clinking of bootleggers’ bottles in the coves, the sound of Luke Peeples’ piano filling the air on Calhoun Street in the evening hours, and, on a cold quiet night, if you listen, you will still hear it. Guscio has heard it, and it is a reminder that the spirit of Bluffton lies above all, in the people, and to Babbie, “that is the most marvelous thing of all.”
Roger Pinckney XI
Daufuskie author keeps his mojo rising
Daufuskie Island is a place awash in mystery and in magic. Separated from the world by the physical barriers of the shifting shoals and the wide swing of the tides, it also stands apart from anywhere else in ways that are less tangible. Here, among the shaded canopy of forests that stood long before man’s footprints marred the beaches, are whispers and stories that blur the line between reality and fantasy.
From one local you might hear about the root doctor who prayed on her daughter’s crippled legs, and how that daughter later became a standout on the high school soccer field. At Freeport Marina’s vibrant bar, you’ll spy a mural of the legendary Dr. Buzzard. And on one quiet road, you can spy a talisman of ancient voodoo staring back at you from the woods, an eye set in the middle of a haint blue handprint painted on plywood and nailed into a loblolly. The mesh strainer below it may seem like an odd way to ward off evil, until you learn of its secret powers.
“We have a ghost around here called a slip-skin hag,” explained author Roger Pinckney XI, long-time Daufuskie Island resident. “The hag doesn’t like the color blue and she has an obsessive compulsive disorder. So she sees that strainer and says, ‘Dammit, how many holes does that have?’ She gets up to 200, 250, and loses count. She’ll spend the whole night counting those holes.”
From anyone else, these stories might seem like campfire fodder. But Pinckney knows better. Growing up in Beaufort before the days of golf development and resort lifestyle living changed the county forever, he saw the old ways of African folklore and root magic as an everyday fact of life. In those days, the threat of “the root” was all too real.
“My daddy was county coroner and he saw people killed by it all the time. But he couldn’t put that on the death certificate,” said Pinckney. “So he had a code – dead by undetermined natural causes. But everyone knew what it was. They’d get the root on them, they’d quit eating, quit drinking and die. You can’t help me, no doctor can help me, I’m gone.”
The mysterious powers of root magic, traditions and practices that came over from Africa with a people placed in bondage, still hold tremendous sway here. Pinckney can take you to a cemetery where Cooper River Plantation once stood, and tell you how the Melrose company brought the root on themselves by building a reception center on the graves of the enslaved.
“Some of the local people went to see the voodoo doctor and put the curse on Melrose,” he said. That curse took its first five lives when a boat flipped and killed five engineers hired by the company. Then it started going after the executives, with several dying under bizarre circumstances. As to the ultimate fate of Melrose, well we all know how that turned out. “They’ve lost $300 million already, and it’s still in ruins.”
At that same graveyard, you can catch Pinckney placing quarters on a crude block of concrete marking the final resting place of one Rebecca Chisolm, payment for the gifts her grave provides. “A friend of mine asked me to get some dirt from a grave to use as a kind of voodoo spell, so she always asks me to put coins on the graves here,” he said. That dirt, known as goofer dust in root doctor parlance, is used for a number of things, including the protective mojo bag you’ll find in Pinckney’s wallet.
“I got my mojo in one pocket and a pistol in the other,” he said. “And the love of Jesus in my heart, so I’m covered.”
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