As one of America's most haunted cities, Savannah, Georgia, has a long list of stories of the supernatural, such as the story of the first two people hanged in colonial Savannah for the murder of their abusive master. Or James Stark, a tempestuous planter, and Dr. Philip Minis, who settled their dispute with a duel and still hang around the old building at Moon River Brewing Co. Or the terrifying "boy-giant," Rene Rhondolia, who preys on young girls and animals. Join authors Michael Harris and Linda Sickler as they navigate the chilling world of those who refuse to leave their Savannah homes.
About the Author
Michael Harris is a private researcher and writer with a PhD in textual studies. He is currently the Ghosts and Gravestones Trolley Tour (Old Town Trolley Tours®, Savannah, Georgia) supervisor. He also has a BA in history. He loves to read and listen to good ghost stories, and has an abiding interest in strange cultural phenomena. Linda Sickler is an award-winning reporter for the Savannah Morning News. She is also a licensed tour guide who loves Savannah's people, history, restaurants, architecture, flora and fauna. Having conducted ghost tours for several years, she is a firm believer that something is "out there" or ought to be.
Read an Excerpt
A HAUNTED HANGING
ALICE RILEY AND RICHARD WHITE
I would rather be a paid servant in a poor man's house and be above ground than king of kings among the dead.
— Achilles to Ulysses
One of the most beautiful squares in Savannah is Wright Square. It was the second square built after Johnson and one of three James Oglethorpe and his Savannah settlers established in the first years of the colony.
Known as Percival Square back then, in addition to housing plots of land for the settlers to cultivate, it functioned as the judicial center of the town's activities. The courthouse and jail were located on the western side of the square. This magnificent and storied square was also ominously known as "hanging square," the place where the condemned met their fate on the gallows in the eighteenth century.
Knowing its past history, one cannot walk around it at night or on a bright sunny day without feeling, and perhaps faintly hearing, the cries, moans and groans of those who met their deaths dangling from the end of a sturdy rope.
One particular hanging, in fact, the first in the colony, is particularly haunting — full of intrigue, mystery and tragedy, as well as a good dose of sex and love. What follows is the true story that took place in 1734–35, which still haunts the square to this very day.
VOYAGE TO AMERICA: PRELUDE
So this was seasickness.
Alice Riley managed to pull herself to the ship's rail where she retched. She had been warned the voyage's earliest days would be unpleasant, but surely this was something much worse. Could she be dying?
"No, lass, yer not dyin'," a kind-looking woman said as she pulled the girl upright. "It will pass in a few days as ye gain yer sea legs."
Alice certainly didn't want to die. She had embarked on the dangerous voyage to the New World because she very much wanted to live, and like a lady, too.
She'd wanted nothing more than to escape the dirty, smoky hovel she lived in and to leave the dank air of dirty lanes in the darkest and poorest corner of the city where she lived. She was dressed in her finest, but the wool of her skirt was faded and drab from too much wear.
Alice longed to feel the silken finery of a lady draped across her body, like the upper-class Irish women she had seen prancing about the street.
Staring out at the Atlantic Ocean in the dead of winter, she greedily searched the horizon for a sign of the new land to which she was sailing. It was a land promising her a future filled with a better life than she had known in Ireland.
She laughed slightly to herself. Alice was headed to Philadelphia, a popular port for Irish immigrants to America. It was still weeks away and felt like an eternity she couldn't fathom.
What would it be like? What treasures would the city hold in store for her?
Just as she was leaning on the bow of the ship pondering her fate, a flash of red caught her eye. She turned to see young Richard White, slender and muscular, strutting gracefully across the deck. The ocean's shifting waves and currents had not taken him down. He must be strong and able, she thought.
Feeling her gaze, Richard glanced at Alice, winked and flashed a knowing smile. There was something a little devilish about that smile, a bit of arrogance and daring that made him attractive yet dangerous.
Alice felt the blush rise across her face as she turned away. She had no time for the likes of Richard White. Sure, she would have three to four years or more of servitude to pay, but she would still be young when the time was up. There would be plenty of time to realize the dream of the new life she planned, and with a man of means in a land of plenty. Life was surely going to be good in her new home.
As she gazed out on the seemingly endless ocean with the cold, wet wind streaming across her cheeks, she saw strange apparitions on the horizon. They looked like ghostly human figures with distorted, menacing faces, as if to harm someone or something. As if to harm her!
She turned away for a moment and then looked out at the vast ocean again. The figures had disappeared as quickly as they appeared.
A chill ran down her spine and a sense of foreboding came over her like nothing else she'd felt before. She was uneasy but determined to stand firm against whatever tides turned against her. Little did she know what she was in for.
The legend of Alice and Richard has been told with relish by generations of Savannah ghost tour guides, and with good reason. This story has it all — love, sex, violence, even a gripping courtroom drama. But is it all true?
* * *
A woman named Alice Riley arrived in Savannah in 1734. She was an indentured servant, which meant she signed a contract to work for a master for up to seven years in order to repay her passage to America.
Unfortunately, she was placed with an ill-tempered, nasty, lecherous old man named William Wise. Among her daily duties, Alice had to bathe him, comb the lice from his matted hair and even pick the crumbs from his long, greasy beard. Ugh! She hated it!
So Alice and a fellow servant, Richard White, plotted to murder old William Wise. One morning, Richard strangled William with his own neckerchief, and Alice, just to make sure he was dead, finished him off by drowning him in his own steaming bathwater.
Then they ran — but didn't get far. They were captured, brought back to trial, found guilty and sentenced to hang. But Alice had a surprise — she told the judge she was with child. So he delayed both sentences, and everyone waited to see.
Sure enough, months later, Alice did indeed give birth to a baby boy. The infant was stripped from her arms just two weeks later, and Alice was taken to Percival Square (now Wright Square) and hanged.
This was the first public execution in the new colony of Georgia, and everyone turned out to see the spectacle. Alice didn't disappoint. She was taken to a large oak tree where she was hanged, screaming and cursing the people and trees that surrounded her until the weight of her body against the earth took her last breath.
Richard was hanged the following day — and the day after that — and the day after that. You see, his sentence was to be hanged by the neck until dead, and that's how long it took them to get the job done.
To this day, Spanish moss does not grow on the northeast corner of Wright Square. That's because Alice cursed it as she died, a curse that lingers to this very day.
Tourists are warned: "If you walk through this square late at night, don't be surprised if you see a sad, wild-eyed woman. It's only Alice looking for her lost baby. The Savannah police receive several reports every year of a hysterical woman in Wright Square who is looking for her missing child."
A sloop loaded with servants was forced here through the stress of weather and want of victuals, many of them were dead. Only 40 remained, as they were likewise ready to perish through misery.
Alice Riley took a huge risk in 1733. She decided to embark on a dangerous voyage to an unknown fate across the Atlantic Ocean. It was not long before Alice's optimism turned into a fight for her life on the ship. On its way to Philadelphia, the sloop encountered a winter storm that decimated the passengers.
Midway through the trip, she had long forgotten the hope-filled encounter with the recruiting agent who pumped her full of dreams of eventual prosperity in the New World. She and the others on board were fighting for their lives.
What stores were not lost at sea were soon depleted, and the survivors were ill and starving when they were finally rescued. By the time help arrived, only six women and thirty-four men, all young and unmarried, were still alive.
The boat limped into the cold Savannah harbor on January 10, 1734, just eleven months after the founding of the colony. Even though the Georgia charter discouraged the presence of servants, especially Irish ones, Oglethorpe ignored this and took sympathy on them. He also needed their labor.
He purchased them for five pounds a head and gave them out to various widows to help with their work. He sent four to the cattle farm on Hutchinson's Island, on the north side of the river. Fellow indentured servant Richard White, who would play such a pivotal role in Alice's life in Savannah, was probably one of the four.
Alice was initially sent to the home of Richard Cannon. Cannon came over on the first ship of settlers. His wife and two of his children had died after embarking for Georgia, leaving only his son, Marmaduke, which explains why Alice ended up in Cannon's home. Alice's duties undoubtedly included caring for the boy.
Alice and her fellow servants must have felt one of two ways as a result of their terrible ordeal at sea. They either felt extremely fortunate to have been saved from death, subjects of some wonderful divine providence, or they were angry and bitter once they landed in the colony and understood the harsh, difficult landscape that lay before them.
They could have felt a mixture of both, depending on the time of day and particular menial and difficult chores they were given to perform. Conditions were harsh when they arrived. Everyone was expected to pull their weight in forging the raw forest before them into a civilized and hospitable city.
It seemed to Alice all these people in Savannah did was work, work and more work, cutting trees and building houses and fortifications. As if working from sunup to sundown wasn't enough to eventually kill a person, there was the "seasoning" period of adjusting to the different climate.
There were also social double standards for indentured servants, particularly Irish ones. Many servants received a more severe punishment for common crimes, and there were plenty in colonial Georgia. Whereas many free persons were fined for petty crimes, such as "profaning the Sabbath," servants were frequently whipped, often receiving sixty or one hundred lashes.
Irish servants were under a special suspicion in Savannah, since the colonists felt they were Roman Catholic, whether they actually were or not, and might side with the Spanish in Florida, who made no secret they wanted to expand into Georgia. To be an Irish servant in Savannah was to be a potential spy for the enemy.
ALICE AND RICHARD: THE CATTLE FARM
Alice Riley did not last long in Cannon's home. Whether she was difficult to deal with or Cannon simply did not need her services since most of his family had died, by early February 1734 she was sent to the trustee cattle farm across the river on Hutchinson's Island. She was now in the company of fellow servant Richard White.
Every version of the Alice Riley ghost story says the pair was in love. How probable is this? Is there any evidence to support it? Just because they were both involved in the same tragic events that would seal their common fate does not mean they were lovers. Let's take a look.
They were both Irish and indentured servants who arrived on the same ship. The vessels used to carry passengers like them to the American colonies were small and crowded, with approximately eighty to one hundred people on board. They more than likely knew each other before landing together on the island, either meeting on the ship or after landing in Savannah.
It is possible they fell in love before embarking on their journey. They could have come from the same small village in famine-swept Ireland and been very much in love. If they were lovers, they could not marry in the New World until both completed their time as servants. But they could carry on an amorous relationship without being married.
They surely would not have been the only ones in the colony engaged in this type of behavior. The colonial records reflect numerous instances of people living in "open adultery," as Georgia officials called the practice.
And the practice was not just relegated to the poorer ranks of Savannah inhabitants, such as servants. The town's first official town recorder, Thomas Christie, "lived in open adultery with Turner's wife" in 1739 and was "guilty of other faults." He was subsequently removed from his official position as a result.
A more likely scenario for Alice and Richard is they were thrown into each other's arms and hearts by the terrible circumstances they endured on the ship and the colony. The pair found solace in each other's company.
Richard could have saved Alice's life on more than one occasion during the winter storm that almost killed them. They were now working together in the same household, and things would surely be better for them.
MASTER WILLIAM WISE
A somewhat shifty man named William Wise was their master. Wise's own story boggles the mind and reveals a good deal about his deceptive and swindling nature.
The scalawag applied to come to Savannah in June 1733 and wanted the trustees to pay his way over. The problem was he wasn't a debtor, a requirement for payment of passage to Georgia. He may have been of aristocratic stock at one time and had fallen on hard times. The Georgia Trustees president, John Percival, referred to him as "an unfortunate gentleman."
Wise would provide further letters of recommendation to no avail. He took matters into his own manipulative hands since the Trustees were dragging their feet on the matter, boarding the ship Savannah on September 11, 1733, determined to go. On the way over, the Trustees denied his request, but it was too late. He was already bound for the city.
The former aristocrat would cause a good deal of trouble on the trip over. Many others on board complained of his behavior, especially when it was discovered the young woman he claimed was his daughter turned out to be a prostitute.
He assumed the position of the master of the cattle farm on the island after he landed. The trip over and the demands of his position caused him to become ill, only adding fuel to his corrupted and manipulative personality. He was apparently a very vain man, taking pride in his long, flowing hair. However, like Samson before, his proud locks would end up contributing to his demise.
* * *
What a tortuous physical and mental state Alice and Richard must have been in! They were surely wounded, perhaps beyond repair, experiencing a lifetime of poverty in their native land only to board a ship and come so close to death.
Were their minds warped, too? Had they gone mad, already experiencing enough tragedy in a lifetime, with only more to come?
Their collective traumas would push them over the edge of despair to perform an act they would both regret.
MURDER MOST FOUL
"The unfortunate Mr. Wise ... The manner of his murder was thus...."
Monday, March 1, 1734, probably started out like any other day at the cattle farm. Alice and Richard would have received their marching orders, laid down by Wise: "Take care of me before you do anything else!"
Alice had the humiliating job of bathing the sick man, while Richard was told to comb Wise's long, greasy hair. But this day the two snapped. They'd had enough — of the disastrous trip over, Savannah and especially their demanding and humiliating master, William Wise.
Alice coolly responded as usual to Wise's demand, bringing a pail of hot water for his ritual bath and hair cleaning. William Wise was largely confined to his bed by this time.
Instead of performing their usual demeaning tasks of cleaning and grooming the sick man, they had something else up their sleeves. Richard White concocted a dastardly and dangerous scheme to free the two of them from Wise's abusive clutches and liberate them from their despairing situation. Wise was oblivious to their plan.
As the two approached the prostrate, sickly man, Richard shot a quick glance toward Alice, nodded and then quickly and coldly carried out the execution. He snatched Wise's handkerchief and wrapped it tightly around his neck. Richard then began strangling Wise with all his might, focusing every ounce of fury onto Wise with a single intent — to murder him!
Alice pitched in for the kill, too. She grabbed Wise by his long, lustrous locks after White strangled him and plunged his face into the pail of water to finish him off. A few bubbles came up from the bottom of the pail. Alice plunged him deeper, her heart madly racing. She was screaming with fury inside, yet quiet as a mouse.
Wise's body went limp as the last pocket of air slowly ascended to the top of the water and burst.
Wise was unable to fend them off. It was two against a weak and sickened man. William had no chance. He was dead.
Alice and Richard were now on the lam and surely ran for their lives to escape the penalty for the crime. They committed the first murder in the colony just over a year after the city was settled, and they knew the authorities would be hot on their trail when Wise was discovered. To make matters worse, they not only murdered Wise but also robbed him of what valuables they could carry along.
They were apparently quickly captured and brought into town to face the consequences of their murderous actions.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Historic Haunts of Savannah"
Copyright © 2014 Michael Harris and Linda Sickler.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 A Haunted Hanging; Alice Riley and Richard White 11
2 Sledgehammer: Rene Rhondolia 31
3 Shady Corner: The Sorrels and Molly 43
4 At Death, We Do Depart: Willie and Nellie 59
5 Ghost Justice: Skee and Justice 67
6 Bones, Burials and Ghosts: Tomochichi and Oglethorpe 85
7 High Noon: James Stark and Philip Minis 107
About the Authors 141
About the Contributors 143