Sometimes you walk into a room, a building, or even a town, and you feel it. Something seems off—an atmosphere that leaves you oddly unsettled, with a sense of lingering darkness. Join Aaron Mahnke, the host of the popular podcast Lore, as he explores some of these dreadful places and the history that haunts them.
Mahnke takes us to Colorado and the palatial Stanley Hotel, where wealthy guests enjoyed views of the Rocky Mountains at the turn of the twentieth century—and where, decades later, a restless author would awaken from a nightmare, inspired to write one of the most revered horror novels of all time. Mahnke also crosses land and sea to visit frightful sites—from New Orleans to Richmond, Virginia, to the brooding, ancient castles of England—each with its own echoes of dark deeds, horrible tragedies, and shocking evil still resounding.
Filled with evocative illustrations, this eerie tour of lurid landmarks and doomed destinations is just the ticket to take armchair travelers with a taste for the macabre to places they never thought they’d visit in their wildest, scariest dreams.
The World of Lore series includes:
MONSTROUS CREATURES • WICKED MORTALS • DREADFUL PLACES
Praise for World of Lore: Dreadful Places
“Well-written, rooted in deep historical research, and ridiculously entertaining . . . Each chapter brings a creepy story from folklore to life. . . . Hair-raising stuff.”—SyFy Wire
“Fans of the Lore podcast won’t want to miss this latest volume in the creator’s series, a collection of illustrated versions of both rare and well-known stories about ‘lurid landmarks and doomed destinations.’”—io9
“Dreadful Places is a delight for Lore fans and newbies alike. In the book, [Aaron] Mahnke visits places around the world that are steeped in a supernatural legacy.”—Refinery29
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The places we live have a way of coming to look like us over time. It’s almost as if people inject their true nature—those passions and priorities and all the intimate details of the heart—into the very fabric of the place they call home.
Just look at the big cities of the world, and you’ll see human nature written in their architecture. The beautiful façades of London, one of the world’s leading financial centers, practically drip with wealth and power. The glassy skyscrapers of Dubai stand as an outward expression of an inward love of achievement. When we spend enough time somewhere, we have a tendency to build it in our own likeness.
And that’s true of the darker aspects of life as well. Think of the number of cities in America with neighborhoods built around social status or ethnic identity. Or the bright, attractive lights of Las Vegas surrounded by barren desert, as if that tug-of-war between our desperation and dreams had come to life. Our cities are a part of us. In some ways, they are us.
Cities are often described as being alive, as having a pulse and a heart, and we, the people, are their blood. We personify them to the point where they are indistinguishable from the humans who built them. In 1946, the well-known American-turned-British-aristocrat Lady Astor visited the city of Savannah, Georgia, and described it as “very much like a beautiful woman with a dirty face.” It had an aura about it, something dark and unclean, that seemed to blur the obvious beauty of the place. And maybe she was on to something. In the decades since, Savannah has become known as the most haunted city in America.
Now, I’m not sure how you measure that sort of characteristic, or if you can even declare something like that to be an indisputable fact. Still, according to those who live there, Savannah is home to a lot more darkness than we might realize.
And considering its grim past, it’s easy to understand why.
Ebb and Flow
When Americans talk about the original thirteen colonies, they’re talking about the seeds that grew into the country we have today. Thirteen separate settlements that grew into territories, and then—eventually—the first thirteen American states. The oldest colony, Virginia, dates back to 1607, while Georgia didn’t receive a charter until over a century later, in 1732. They were the last to show up at the party, so to speak.
The leader of the Georgia colony was a man named James Oglethorpe, and he had two very specific goals for the settlement there. First, it would be a buffer territory between the other British colonies to the north and the Spanish to the south. And so slavery was actually illegal, because Oglethorpe didn’t want a colony full of soft, lazy white men; he wanted soldiers.
Second, he envisioned Georgia as a new home for the hopeless of England. People who had served time in jail for debt but were trying to rebuild their lives. Or—as Oglethorpe described them—the “worthy” poor. It was meant to be a humble community, with smaller estates and more purpose behind the land division.
Oglethorpe and his team of 120 colonists arrived on February 12, 1733, and immediately did what English settlers were experts at doing: they approached the indigenous people who already lived there and negotiated for the best land. As a result, those original native inhabitants had to move inland. Shocking, I know.
Oglethorpe’s prize was a bluff overlooking the mouth of the river, and it was there that he laid the foundation for a new city. He called it Savannah, named after the river itself, and set about planning every square foot of the place. In fact, it was America’s first planned city, with an almost obsessive arrangement of public squares surrounded by streets aligned to a tidy grid. And I’m going to be honest with you—as a former designer, I love it.
Four decades later, after the colonies broke off from England, Georgia legalized the ownership and forced labor of other human beings, allowing rich white Georgians to build a powerful economy on the backs of slaves. In fact, years later, in 1859, Savannah would be the location of one of the largest sales of human lives in American history. Nearly 450 men, women, and children were sold over the course of two days, breaking up nearly a hundred families. It’s said that torrential rains fell during the entire event, leading those who were trapped in that system to refer to it as “the Weeping Time,” as if the heavens themselves were broken by the tragedy of it all.
Slaves allowed the rich to get richer in Georgia, and as the port city, Savannah became the place through which all that wealth flowed. But it wasn’t all sunshine and roses for the white people of Savannah. As the years ticked by, the community there had to endure a number of darker events, moments of tragedy that left bruises on the city’s history. And the first of those happened in 1796.
That was the year that a fire broke out in the bakery owned by one Mr. Grommet. On the evening of November 26, a fire started in his unoccupied shop and then moved to neighboring structures. Thanks to a two-month-long drought and an inadequate fire service, the blaze spread quickly and eventually destroyed over two hundred homes and 150 other buildings—roughly one-third of the entire city.
Another fire occurred in January 1820, destroying nearly five hundred buildings and leaving two-thirds of the city’s inhabitants completely homeless. Later that year, while so many people were outdoors rebuilding their homes, heavy rain and hot weather led to a perfect breeding ground for mosquitos, which began the spread of yellow fever. By the time it finally ran its course, the epidemic had claimed nearly seven hundred lives, more than 20 percent of the city’s population. It was described by one witness as a “scene of sickness, misery and ruin.”
Forty years later, after capturing Atlanta in September 1864, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman led sixty-two thousand soldiers south toward Savannah. Less than a month after their arrival, the city fell. And while the city was spared the destruction that Sherman had built a reputation for, smaller battles around the city took hundreds of lives. Five months later, the war was over.
A decade after that, yellow fever returned, moving across the city like a tidal wave and taking another thousand lives with it. There are rumors that city officials hid many of the bodies in underground tunnels beneath the former Candler Hospital in an effort to hide the severity of the outbreak. While those stories can’t be entirely validated, we do know those same tunnels were once used by the hospital for autopsies.
Everywhere you go in Savannah, it seems there’s a bit of history lurking in the background. It’s an ancient city, at least by American standards, and you can feel it in the genteel pre–Civil War architecture. Just take a walk along historic River Street, past the centuries-old warehouses that now play host to taverns, hotels, and boutiques, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s beautiful, in a haunting sort of way.
There’s something else, though. Something lurking at the edges like a shadowy figure, waiting to reveal itself. Maybe it’s the gloom of those shady squares, or the tangle of Spanish moss that hangs off so many of the trees like the web of some unnatural spider. Savannah has just as much darkness as it does beauty.
And then, of course, there are the ghosts.
I’m going to be honest with you: James Stark was a bit of a jerk. On the surface, he was everything you would expect from a southern gentleman in 1830. He was young, rich, and quite fond of climbing the social ladder. But like I said, he wasn’t the nicest of people.
He seemed to have a problem with another of the men in his circle, Philip Minis. That’s because, while Stark was descended from English plantation owners, Minis was the son of the first Jewish settlers in the area. So Stark, believing that someone’s ancestry somehow made them inferior, used every opportunity he could find to mock and insult poor Minis.
In the spring of 1832, this apparently led to a confrontation between the two of them. One version of the legend says that the pair had been playing a game of horseshoes and that Stark became angry when Minis beat him. Stark called the other man some derogatory and racially based names, and Minis demanded an apology. Stark refused, and instead offered a different solution: they should settle it with a duel.
Minis agreed, and both parties began to prepare for the appointed day. Except something came up and Minis couldn’t make it. He told Stark, but his request for a delay was ignored. So on the day of the duel, Stark arrived in his finest coat and pulled out an ornate and expensive dueling pistol. After waiting for a while for his opponent to arrive, he simply fired it into the air, and then declared Philip Minis a coward.
But you can’t do something like that without word spreading, and eventually Minis caught wind of what had happened. Naturally, he was outraged, and went looking for Stark. According to the story, he tracked him down to the City Hotel, and on August 10, 1832, he made his way there, took a seat at the bar, and had one of the staff take a message up to Stark’s room. And then . . . he waited.
A few minutes later, Stark descended the stairs, and locked eyes with Minis. There was a moment of intense, palpable tension, and then Philip Minis shouted across the room, “I pronounce you, James Stark, a coward!”
Both men reached for their pistols, but Minis was faster. He fired just once, and Stark toppled over, landing at the foot of the stairs in a puddle of his own blood. He never stood back up.
After a short trial that ended in his acquittal, Minis moved north to Maryland, where he served as a physician to the Native Americans in the Baltimore area, and died there decades later of natural causes. James Stark, though, seems to have never left the City Hotel. The building later became a hospital and is now home to a brewery, and sightings of his ghost there are as common as the sweet smell of beer.
Eight years after that fateful duel, architect Charles Cluskey was supervising the final touches on an enormous 16,000-square-foot mansion at the intersection of Bull and Harris Streets. The owner was a wealthy shipping merchant who had moved there from Haiti, where his family had long owned a large and profitable plantation. Judging by how many secrets he had to hide, he was going to need every single spare room in that house.
For starters, he had moved to Savannah at a time when there were more slaves in the city than white European Americans. That social divide was ever-present, like a cultural Grand Canyon, and people were very good at maintaining the status quo. Which presented a challenge to François Sorrel des Rivières, because in addition to speaking French, he had the blood of African slaves in his veins.
After moving to Savannah in 1812, François transformed himself. He learned to speak perfect English, changed his name to Francis Sorrel, and pushed his ancestry deep into the dark. And it seems to have worked, however tragic it is that he had to do that at all.
His first wife, Lucinda, passed away from yellow fever in 1817, leaving him alone with three children. He married again two years later to a woman named Matilda, and they went on to have eight children of their own. Together, the family filled that mansion with laughter and noise and . . . well . . . more secrets, apparently.
Matilda was said to struggle with severe depression, and would often stay in bed for days or weeks at a time. Her needs, along with those of Francis and the children, were all taken care of, though, because the family, in a textbook example of irony, actually owned a large number of slaves.
One of those slaves, according to the legend, was a young woman named Molly, whose beauty caught the eye of Francis. So much so that he carried on an affair with her, right under the same roof as his wife. It was bold, and—if history has taught us anything about slave owners and the way they treated the women they owned—it was also probably against Molly’s consent.
This went on for some time, until one day Matilda opened a door to one of the bedrooms, only to find Francis in bed with Molly. It’s said that the discovery was so shocking that Matilda ran back to her own bedroom, threw open the balcony doors, and jumped out. She died where she landed on the street below. A few days later, Molly ended her own life in the carriage house.
With a past that bloody, it’s no wonder that for many decades visitors to the house have claimed to experience unusual phenomena. Tourists have reported being touched by unseen hands, or feeling the pain of being struck by an invisible force. Others have described shadowy figures that move across hallways, and the sounds of voices crying out from different parts of the house. If these stories are true, the house might be unoccupied, but it’s certainly not empty.
Whether or not the reports are true, this series of events is far from the darkest tale to have come out of Savannah. The city’s past is checkered with moments of violence and evil, and it’s easy to get lost in the shadows. But the most tragic story of all happened just two years after the city was founded.
It seems that the first settlers of Savannah brought more than hope to the New World; they also brought death.
Bound and Gagged
Oglethorpe had a lofty goal for the colony of Georgia. On the surface, it seemed like a great opportunity: either you could stay in jail for the debts you might never be able to pay back, or you could board a ship and travel to the New World and make a fresh start. You just had to work hard and be willing to take up arms if there was a need. To get the word out, Oglethorpe used agents in England and Ireland to recruit new settlers. As you would expect, the terms were spelled out clearly to these candidates.
Except you know how tricky contracts can be, right? Phrases that sound good on the surface but hide a catch or a trap that you don’t notice. This was indentured servitude, sometimes called debt bondage, because once you agreed to the deal, you were barely better off than a slave for the next seven years.