Cover Story - The hauntings of Atlanta
The tales behind some of the city's most ghostly places
David Hirt never expected to encounter a ghost on a MARTA train.
As a corporate commuter in the mid-1980s, Hirt cut out of his Peachtree Street office early one wintry afternoon and rode toward his Stone Mountain home on public transportation. While listening to music on his headphones, he noticed something move next to his reflection in one of the windows on the nearly empty train.
"Why'd you have to sit next to me? The car's practically deserted," Hirt thought to himself of the 40ish, black-haired man in a business suit sitting next to him. But when Hirt turned to look directly at his companion, no one was there.
At the time, he didn't think much of it, and still isn't sure it was a paranormal experience. "Did I see something, or did I just have a bad sandwich at lunch? I don't know," he says. "It looked just like a regular business guy. At the time, I thought ghost stories were supposed to have cloud-like things or evil masks or ooo-ooo-oooo."
Today Hirt works as an actor, a holiday Santa Claus and a storyteller at events such as Stone Mountain's Tour of Southern Ghosts. He appreciates that an enigmatic encounter can inspire a chilling tale to be shared around a late-night campfire. "Was he someone killed on a MARTA train, or someone who died during the building of MARTA and was buried in his best suit," Hirt wonders about his experience. "I think a good storyteller will be able to take something like that and make it into a story. But a lot of ghost stories don't have a beginning, a middle or an end."
You don't have to believe in spooks to embrace the power of a ghost story to tease the imagination and evoke the secret histories of people and places. Often you might find that ghosts aren't just separated from their corporeal lives, but from the stories that explain them. "Sometimes the most haunted spot doesn't have a good story, just a lot of reports of things that happened," says Cynthia Rintye, who leads Lawrenceville Ghost Tours under the name Madame Macabre.
In Atlanta, urban legends, online accounts and other reports of spectral behavior at times lack explanation. A headless Confederate soldier patrols Downtown's Five Points area at night. A package-laden woman rides down the Peachtree Center escalator but never reaches the bottom. In Marietta, the statue of Mary Meinert in St. James Episcopal Cemetery is believed to weep tears of blood at midnight. At Six Flags Over Georgia, a small boy rides the black horse on the vintage carousel, and may have originally died in Chicago before the carousel was moved.
You might hear about them on a ghost tour, you might even see portentous signals on your iPhone Ghost Capture App, but you probably won't learn the reasons behind the poltergeist activity surrounding a specific location or event. The mystery often gives the rumors staying power. The possibility of a spirit taps at the shoulder of your skepticism: Is there more to life than what we can see and touch? A Saw movie may provoke revulsion with its graphic violence and then be quickly forgotten. But the right ghost story can be too ambiguous to be quickly dismissed.
Atlanta lacks the booming ghost population of an atmospheric Southern city such as Savannah, perhaps because so many of the ATL's historic buildings were either destroyed in the Civil War or razed in the name of development. Local author Christina Barber, who writes books and investigates spirits with her teenage daughter under the name the Ghost Girlz, suggests that local phantasms dislike metropolitan clamor. "My theory is that ghosts don't seem to haunt noisy places such as cities too often. Perhaps it's either too noisy for the ghosts, or too noisy for people to notice the subtle clues that there may be a haunting," she says.
Some of Atlanta's most interesting ghosts actually live outside the perimeter. The tales behind our most intriguingly haunted destinations combine historical detail with folklore, supposition and atmospherics to fill in the blanks and build atmosphere. When you talk about ghosts, you have to fill in some blanks.
The Place: Old Lawrenceville Jail, Calaboose Alley, Lawrenceville. Visitors to Lawrenceville's historic business district probably don't spare a second glance to this unmarked building with white paint over granite blocks on Calaboose Alley. Built in 1832, it served as the town jail until 1940.
The Source: Cynthia Rintye, Lawrenceville Ghost Tour
The Story: In 1840, a local slave owner prone to fits of violent rage attacked a servant named Elleck in his quarters. Elleck fled to his sleeping loft and his master pursued him, only to fall from the ladder and impale himself on his sword. Elleck chose not to flee, and instead went to the sheriff to explain his owner's accidental death. Rather than take the word of a slave, the sheriff arrested Elleck and charged him with murder. After the speedy trial the jury found him guilty and sentenced him to hang.
Awaiting his execution, Elleck sought to chip through a weakness in the granite wall to make an escape. He was caught, although the indentation remains on the wall to this day. In punishment, the sheriff chained Elleck to the floor by his wrist and ankles, and the prisoner sang to his beloved Betsy as the hours wound down. On the fourth day the guards took Elleck to the gallows and hanged him.
Over 150 years, however, visitors and passersby claim to feel a presence from the building, and even to have heard bits of song from an unseen presence. Frequently on the Lawrenceville Ghost Tour, a guide will show the visitors the cell and sing the following song:
"Oh, Betsy will you meet me
Betsy will you meet me
Betsy will you meet me in heaven above..."
One noiseless night, everyone on the tour, even the skeptics, heard a faint voice echo the word "me..."
The Place: Ellis Hotel, 176 Peachtree St., Downtown Atlanta. A boutique hotel on the corner of Peachtree and Ellis that shares the site of the Winecoff Hotel fire, a disaster nicknamed "The Titanic on Peachtree."
The Source: Liz Devaney, Darkside Ghost Tours
The Story: On Dec. 7, 1946, the Winecoff Hotel welcomed 280 guests, including holiday shoppers, moviegoers eager to see Disney's Song of the South, and teenagers attending a Tri-Y Youth Conference. At around 3 a.m., an elevator operator smelled smoke near the fifth floor and notified the other employees. The third, fourth and fifth floors were already ablaze, and the self-proclaimed "fireproof" hotel had no fire escapes, fire doors, sprinklers or alarm system.
Firefighters' ladders could only reach the eighth floor of the 15-story building, so many guests attempted to escape through their windows by making ropes out of bed sheets or risking a jump. A Georgia Tech student won a Pulitzer Prize for his photo of a woman leaping from the 11th floor — she survived, despite breaking her back, pelvis and both legs. Not so lucky were the 119 people who died of smoke inhalation, being burned alive or fatally falling to the sidewalks and alleys. The disaster led to extensive rewriting of national fire safety codes.
Speculation holds that arson caused the devastating blaze and that a local criminal Ray McCullough, nicknamed "Candy" or "Candy Man," was the perpetrator. An ex-con with a violent temper, McCullough is believed to have seen an informant at a hotel poker game and set the stairwell on fire in an attempt at retribution.
Reopened in 1951 as the Peachtree Hotel on Peachtree, the property passed through multiple hands over the years, finally taking the name "Ellis Hotel" in 2007. During its various renovations, workers have reported episodes of tools being moved, and apparitions in places inaccessible to the public. Sometimes disembodied sounds, such as running children or screaming women, resound through the halls. And once, for two weeks in a row, the fire alarm went off at 2:48 a.m., which perfectly fits the timetable of the deadly blaze's first spark.
The Place: The historic covered bridge on Concord Road at Nickajack Creek, Smyrna. Built in 1872, with reinforcing steel beams and concrete piers added in the 1950s, the bridge is both a quaint-looking historic artifact and a risky-looking feature on a twisty, wooded lane.
The Story: Neighborhood lore holds that spirits known as "the waterheads" live in or around Nickajack Creek near the bridge. One may be the ghost of a 3-year-old child killed at nearby Ruff's Grist Mill. In 1874, the son of John Reed wandered to the mill's upper story and caught his clothes in the revolving machinery. According to the Marietta Daily Journal 1874 account of the accident, the miller "ascended to the upper floor and to his horror found the child stripped of its clothing, bleeding, gashed and lifeless wedged in among the machinery." In a grim coincidence, the boy's mother was giving birth to a new child just as the older one was slain.
Some residents of the area believe that the waterheads could be the ghosts of one or both of the Reed children, or possibly other kids who drowned in the creek. About 100 years after the death at the mill, a tradition emerged among local teenagers involving the spirits. At night, if you parked on the covered bridge, turned off your lights and placed a Snickers candy bar on the roof of your car, eventually you'd hear a scurrying noise on the trunk and roof, like small feet and hands. Afterward, the candy bar would be gone. Maybe it's a ghost child, maybe a raccoon. Or even a ghost-raccoon.
By the way, DO NOT DO THIS. Today Concord Road sees so much traffic you're likely to cause a head-on collision. In your eagerness to encounter a ghost, do not become one yourself.
The Place: Kennesaw House, 1 Depot St., Marietta. Built as a four-story cotton warehouse next to the railroad tracks in 1845, the brick building became the Fletcher House Hotel in the 1850s, a military hospital in 1863, and currently houses the Marietta Museum of History.
The Story: At different points in 1863 and 1864, both the Confederate and Union armies commandeered the hotel as a hospital, with the third floor serving as the surgical ward. The surgical staff performed hundreds of amputations, some days leaving severed limbs in stacks outside the windows, with the corpses kept in the fourth floor morgue.
Considering the violent history, it's not a surprise that ghostly reports have permeated the property. Daniel O. Cox, founder and CEO of the museum, is skeptical about the existence of ghosts, saying, "Until I get slimed, I'm going to be a nonbeliever." He still claims to have had eerie experiences, like seeing a glowing, female-shaped figure on the lobby security camera, or glimpsing a 19th-century surgeon out of the corner of his eye. Ghosthunters have claimed that the building houses more than 700 spirits, with activity often involving the elevator.
The story that sticks most in the memory dates back to the 1880s, after the reopening of the Fletcher House Hotel. A young man seeking a bride came to stay at the Marietta hotel, and after checking in, rode the elevator to his room. When the lift arrived, the suitor didn't see the hallway of the hotel's third floor, but a dark vestibule dimly lit by a single lantern on the ceiling. In the pool of light lay an unconscious confederate soldier with a doctor, in blood-splattered clothes, standing over him with a saw. The doctor drew the saw back and forth at the soldier's wounded leg, and then stopped. He looked up at the suitor in the elevator, and then returned to his task.
The terrified young man immediately took the elevator down to the lobby, but when the staff returned to the third floor, the elevator only revealed the hotel's third-floor corridor. The suitor, however, fled to find another place to spend the night.
The Source: Dianna Avena, Roswell Ghost Tour
The Place: J. Christopher's at the Public House, 605 Atlanta St., Roswell. The restaurant in the breakfast-and-lunch chain occupies the site of the Public House, the former Roswell Mill Commissary built in 1854.
The Story: During the Civil War, the commissary served as the location of a Romeo-and-Juliet romance between Michael, a 17-year-old soldier in the occupying army, and a young Southern woman named Catherine, believed to be the daughter of the building's owner. The romance between the Northerner and Southerner didn't last long enough to scandalize the community: Michael was either killed by Confederates while on guard duty, or accused to treason and hanged. If the latter, Catherine watched the execution from the upper floor of the commissary, and then some weeks later, hanged herself in the same room.
Rumor holds that the souls can be seen together, dancing in the building's loft at night. Their activities tend to be tame and prankish, like loudly whispering the names of workers in their ears. Bartenders have reported that liquor bottles have been mislabeled over night, suggesting that the building never sold alcohol when it served as the commissary, and the deceased spirits dislike the presence of distilled spirits in the building.