Staking out the Lowcountry’s ‘Sleepy Hollow’ on St. Helena Island
Story by Eddy Hoyle
Remember Ichabod Crane, the lanky schoolteacher who was chased and tormented by the headless horseman? He’s a fictional character and the protagonist in Washington Irving’s short story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” first published in 1820. Well, legend has it that there is a headless ghost here in the Lowcountry who walks the night with an old, iron lantern searching for his head near the “hanging tree” on Land’s End Road on St. Helena Island. A mysterious light supposedly appears after dark in the distance like a single headlight coming down the road toward you, but when it gets closer, you realize there is no car.
I admit that curiosity about legends of the hauntings at Land’s End intrigue me. There are tales of runaway slaves who were captured and hanged from the tree. Another legend claims the light is the spirit of Private Frank Quigley, a soldier killed in a fight over moonshine. Some believe it’s the ghost of a murdered Confederate soldier who was on patrol when a Yankee soldier snuck up behind him and cut off his head. Others claim it’s the ghost of a slave, sold away from his family, who’s back to hunt for them. Another account is that a bus crashed on this road in the 1940s killing the driver and a couple of passengers — some claim it was a bus full of children. These tragic stories, and so many alleged encounters with the Light of Land’s End, definitely piqued my interest.
I wanted to see for myself. So I made a plan: a stakeout at the hanging tree and interviews with locals who may have experienced the light. I chose the night of a full moon (just to add to the creepy factor) and convinced my husband, Renny, to accompany me for moral support and protection. Finally the date arrived, but Hurricane Isaias did, too. It was still daylight as we drove over several bridges, and we could see the spiraling clouds generated by the hurricane far offshore. Those clouds would later black out the moon and stars like ink.
We drove the seven miles down Land’s End Road to where the land does indeed just end — no gentle sloping beach, just the end of land and the abrupt beginning of water. The long stretch is flanked by fields carefully tilled and live oaks cloaked with Spanish moss, and the farther we drove, the more isolated it got. At the end I spotted a woman pulling into her driveway and jumped out of the car to ask her about the light. Yes! She had seen it!
Amy Moseley’s family has owned their home since 1957. “I grew up here,” she said. “And when I was a kid, I heard all the ghost stories. The adults would try to fool us by hiding with a flashlight, but we knew it was them.” She said last summer a friend visited from Aiken and talked her into going out to see the light. “I ain’t gonna lie to you,” she said. “My heart was palpitating, and I didn’t really think we’d see it. It was really eerie. You couldn’t even hear the crickets. It was dead silent and very intense. Then we saw a light and it came right at us. Scared us to death. We both screamed and drove right out of there.” I asked her if she believed it was the light. She responded, “I’ve always been a skeptic, but you know … you can’t see the air, but it’s there, and you can’t see God, but He’s there. So yes, I believe it was.”
We passed by a fire station and decided to see what the firefighters knew. They would be experts about the community, and possibly familiar with things that go bump in the night. Firefighters Griff Strock and Eric Amely answered our knocks. When I asked if they had seen it or responded to calls about the light, they gave each other knowing and reticent looks, but soon they opened up. They told me how crows hang out at the tree and that many folks have reported seeing a man hanging from the tree. Amely said his family saw an orange light flickering at the tree, but couldn’t be sure. Strock said there have been lots of accidents there, and according to folklore, the tree sometimes walks into the road. Strock has a keen interest in the legends of St. Helena Island and has built an extensive personal library. He spoke about curses, voodoo and the story of Dr. Buzzard and Sheriff McTeer back in the day.
It was pitch dark by now, so I asked for specific directions to the hanging tree to begin my stakeout. I was given the exact location, but I was also told I had to make a stop first — at the Baptist Church back up the road at the intersection of Bermuda Bluff and Land’s End Road.
“Hmmm, okay, why?” Stock said if I really wanted to be successful, I had to “wake up the spirits” by knocking on the door and ordering them to awaken.
Undeterred, I was determined to do everything in my power to experience the light. Renny just rolled his eyes. So we backtracked to the church, I boldly ran to the front door, banged a few times and hollered “wake up!” When the motion detector floodlight went on, I bolted back to the car.
We located the tree and carefully pulled off the road directly under its wide boughs, turned off the engine and waited. And waited. And waited. Finally we saw a light coming toward us, and like Amy, my heart was palpitating. But as it closed in, one distant light became two headlights. That happened twice during the stakeout. As I stood on the side of the road, I was amazed at how black the night was, no porchlights or street lights, no moon or stars. Just pitch black. Finally, Renny said it was time to go. I resisted. He insisted. Before I complied, on a pure whim, I held the camera up and took one picture of the jet black nothingness. But in the picture (above), well, you decide. I don’t know what the heck it is.
Will you ever be brave enough to go in search of Pvt. Quigley, or the slave ghost or the Confederate soldier who supposedly carries the “Land’s End Light” looking for his decapitated head along the road?
Hilton Head Island to the Land’s End Light
48 miles: 1 hour, 5 minutes
Directions: From Lady’s Island, take the Sea Island Parkway toward St. Helena Island. When you see Gullah Grub restaurant on the left, turn right onto Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, which turns into Land’s End Road. You will pass Martin Luther King Park at the Green, the Penn Center, several churches and St. Helena Parish Chapel of Ease ruins. Beyond the Bermuda Bluff/Land’s End Road intersection, you will spot this oak, known as the hanging tree. Park on the right side of the road, facing the tree and wait for the light. Stay brave if you see it. Legend has it, the light will disappear if you start your car.