As visitors from the past, Ghosts & Legends Tour participants Nick Hairston, 16, and Savanah Lawson, 15, wait for the next train at The Depot in Columbus Wednesday. Hairston, a sophomore at Heritage Academy, is the son of Trip and Dr. Bethany Hairston. Lawson, a sophomore at New Hope High School, is the daughter of Randy and Melanie Basson, and Laura Lawson Beck. Ghosts & Legends bus tours, with stops, take place Nov. 9-10. Get tickets at columbus-arts.org, or contact the Columbus Arts Council, 662-328-2787 (closed Mondays). Photo by: Chris McDill/Special to The Dispatch
Tre Womack and Douglas Cockrell III of Columbus reenact the owners of The Haven, an antebellum home in Columbus, in the 2017 Ghosts & Legends Tour.
Photo by: Courtesy photo
Gaines Gaskin shows the parlor window that bears the name "Nellie" etched in the glass in this 2013 photo.
Photo by: Dispatch file photo
October 27, 2018 10:00:43 PM
A notorious train robber of the late 1800s ... a lone girl, waiting on the platform for the rumbling locomotive she hopes will bring her soldier home. Characters like these step out of the past when a chill hits the air and leaves crunch underfoot. It's a time of year when an encounter with our spirited history seems plausible, when a tingly tale heightens the senses and sparks the imagination.
Northeast Mississippi has more than its share of lore and compelling characters. One way to meet a few of them is the annual Ghosts & Legends Tour in Columbus Nov. 9-10. Four bus tours each evening introduce passengers to "spirits" who long ago populated or visited this river town that was a hub for trade and travel. Local performers recreate them in this event presented by the Columbus Arts Council, along with Columbus Community Theatre, The W's Center for Women's Research and Public Policy and the Columbus Cultural Heritage Foundation.
Tour-goers will disembark at four or five stops along the route to hear voices from the past. Some have tales of tragedy; others share their humor. But all are designed to offer a glimpse into a time long ago.
"A lot of people are donating their time and talents for this, so we hope everyone will come out to support them and learn a little more about the spirits and stories that help give Columbus so much character," said Arts Council Program Manager Beverly Norris.
Developing the scene
Coming up with tour vignettes each year is a matter of research and logistics, plus a dose of speculation.
"In deciding where the tour will go, we alternate from the southside to the northside each year," Norris explained. "While we look for stories in that part of the city, we also have to consider things like where the bus can navigate and what the lighting and footing are like. We come up with a location and a story to go with it, always inspired by someone or something from history. Then we research and talk to people in the community that are good resources."
Bridget Pieschel is director of Mississippi University for Women's Center for Women's Research and Public Policy. She has helped develop Ghosts & Legends scripts in the past, and has contributed one this year set on the school's campus. It's inspired by Annie Coleman Peyton, who began teaching at the Industrial Institute and College -- now The W -- in the late 1800s. Pieschel doesn't rule out that she's had an encounter of her own with the "research ghost." It's interwoven into the Ghosts & Legends vignette she created for Peyton.
A different narrative she developed for a past tour germinated from an urban legend that has circulated on campus for years -- that a ghost named Mary who hangs around Callaway Hall hung herself from the landmark clock tower there after her sweetheart was killed in the Civil War.
"What we know is that during the Civil War, the campus was the Columbus Female Institute and that there was no clock tower then. There's no way a Mary from the Civil War could have killed herself on the tower." So, Pieschel imagined what the real source of the legend might be.
After the Battle of Shiloh in 1862, the Columbus Female Institute was packed with wounded soldiers, both Confederate and Union, Pieschel said. Faculty members, students and ladies from the town acted as nurses to those young men.
"I thought about a story in which maybe there was a girl who fell in love with someone she was caring for. Maybe he got well enough to go back into battle and was killed," Pieschel shared. For the tour, she wrote a poignant scene of a young woman and young man, separated by death before they could marry, but reuniting forever at the place they first met.
A sampling of tales
Ghosts & Legends isn't the only way to experience "ghostly" presences. Most towns have their share. Columbus, with its abundance of antebellum and Victorian dwellings, has a generous portion of resident spirits. One makes her home at Errollton, the home of Keith and Gaines Gaskin. It's where Pilgrimage visitors flock to see the window pane with the name "Nellie" etched in it.
The mansion was built in the 1840s by merchant William B. Weaver. Weaver's daughter, Nellie, fell in love with Charles Tucker; they married in 1878. The happy bride etched her name in a window pane in her room, which is now the south parlor. Nellie's bliss didn't last, however. Tucker left her and his child. To support herself, Nellie started a small school. She lived in the mansion until she was 80, as it fell into disrepair around her.
When Gaines Gaskin's grandmother purchased the house in the 1950s, restoration got underway. One day, a workman accidentally broke the pane with Nellie's name. It was replaced with new glass.
Years later, as the story goes, Gaskin's mother, Chebie Bateman, noticed something that hadn't been there before as she reached to close the curtains: Nellie's name etched in the same place and same handwriting as the original had been. Some think the spirit of Nellie was just letting everyone know how pleased she was with the restoration of her beloved home.
Gaskin can recount several other inexplicable incidents in the house. One was around 2005.
"We were rewaxing the floors and we looked back and saw little footprints (in the wax), little footprints going toward the window," she said. The occurrence sent at least one of her helpers scurrying from the parlor.
LaVyrle Spencer and Waverley's ghost
Many are familiar with the story of a ghostly child at Waverley Mansion near West Point. Fewer know the magnificent landmark completed in 1852 is prominently featured in New York Times best-selling romance writer LaVyrle Spencer's 1984 novel "The Gamble." Its young spirit makes an appearance as well.
"LaVyrle Spencer came to tour the house when my mother was alive," said Melanie Snow, whose parents, Robert and Donna Snow, rescued the plantation from ruin in the early 1960s.
"She had heard the story of the little girl and she told my mother that when she walked up the long pathway to the house, that this story just came to her, that she had a picture in her mind of the main character (for the book). That by the time she got to the front door, her mind had created the beginning of 'The Gamble.'"
Snow, although young, was at her mother's side that day and remembers Spencer as a lovely lady, with a lilt in her voice. Spencer and Donna Snow spent several hours together, enjoying each other's company as the popular author absorbed the setting for much of her historical romance.
There are many more local stories for those in search of goosebumps. They generate from places such as Temple Heights, the Lincoln Home and S.D. Lee Home in Columbus. They spring from tales like Three-Legged Lady Road and the Artesia Light in Lowndes County. At Mississippi State, they hint of spirits in George Hall, which was once an infirmary where victims of a flu epidemic were treated.
"If someone really wants to see a haunted image, it's a short drive to Carrollton, Alabama, where one never forgets seeing the face in the courthouse window," said area historian Rufus Ward. "It's one of the rare places where the haunting figure or image is clearly visible."
Ward also remembers his introduction to the legend of "Mrs. Munroe's mausoleum" in Friendship Cemetery in Columbus.
"I recall my grandmother taking me there when I was a child and saying that if I would holler, 'Mrs. Monroe, Mrs. Monroe, what are you doing?' through the cast iron fencing, she would always answer, 'Nothing, nothing at all.' And I never failed to hear her say, in response to my hollering -- nothing, nothing at all."
For the curious, Ward and Gaskin recommend reading "Thirteen Mississippi Ghosts and Jeffrey" and "Thirteen Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey," by Kathryn Tucker Windham. In 2016, the History Press published Alan Brown's "Ghosts of Mississippi's Golden Triangle."
"The whole area is truly rich in stories, many rooted in actual historic events, others that grew up as local legends," Norris said. "What better time of the year to revisit some of them?"
IF YOU GO:
WHO: Columbus Arts Council
WHAT: Ghosts & Legends (bus tours, with stops; comfortable shoes, small flashlights suggested)
WHEN: Friday-Saturday, Nov. 9-10 (6:30, 7, 8, 8:30 p.m.)
WHERE: Tennessee Williams Welcome Center, 300 Main St., Columbus
TICKETS: CAC members: $12; non-members $15, at columbus-arts.org, or 662-328-2787 (some tickets may be available on tour nights, if not sold out)
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.