“No! There is no ghost
. You can’t do an article
Barely two minutes after entering the Alpha Gamma Delta house these words were thrown emphatically at me from a tall, wide-eyed woman. At first, I thought she was joking. But she did mean these words seriously. An A.G.D. Alumni and President of the house association, Robin Towns proceeded to show me several old photos of the family that once resided in the sorority home. Throughout the display she continued to deny the profusion of rumors concerning the ghost that supposedly haunts the historical house. The story involves a young woman named Susie Caruthers who once lived there in the earlier part of this century. She was supposed to get married in the home, but legend says the groom never arrived and out of sorrow she hung herself in the attic.
“There’s no ghost,” Robin repeated as we sat down to talk. “No one was ever hung in the attic. It’s inappropriate and untrue. These silly tales keep getting perpetuated when it never happened. The woman did get married, and she lived and went on to have children.”
The house, which is alabaster white and built in the form similar to a three tiered wedding cake, was constructed in 1896 by an architect, W.W. Thomas. The house sits among a row of other sorority homes on Milledge Avenue in Athens, Georgia, and some people have said that occasionally, the shadowy figure of Susie Caruthers can be viewed through an attic window. But Robin feels that the rumors are a blight on the sorority and wishes them to end. Several other inhabitants, however, hold different opinions.
Kari Drummonds, a sophomore at The University of Georgia who lives in the house, says that she does believe Susie is there. “I’m not scared of her,” she says. “But I think she’s present in the house. Funny things will happen, like doors opening and closing.”
Although Ashley Parks, another live-in sorority member, doesn’t have a real opinion on the ghost, she felt that Robin was primarily concerned about A.G.D.’s reputation and this was the reason she felt so uneasy about my questions when I first arrived. Ashley kindly gave me a tour of the house, showing me around several gorgeous rooms replete with ornate ceiling carvings and carpeted with lavish gold, green and brown printed rugs. One thing I did feel sure of was that the historical house held plenty of history within its walls. Because so much had occurred there in the past and so many souls had passed through the front door, what seemed to remain was a spiritual essence, some kind of intangible residue of energy from decades gone by. By touching the rail of the old staircase, I could feel the energy of its past and previous inhabitants that permeated it. But I did not sense more than a modicum of what could have been deemed especially spooky or supernatural, and it was likely that a portion of it was created by me and my imagination. I’d never been inside a home where stories of a haunting existed, and I found myself searching for any vaporous figures out of the corners of my eyes.
“We joke about her and stuff, but most of us don’t take it too seriously,” Ashley tells me in her room. Incidentally, her room is dubbed “The Engagement Suite” because it belonged to Susie. Many of the sisters want this room because of the good luck it appears to have on the inhabitants’ romantic lives. Past alumni who have stayed there often ended up married within a year after leaving.
Megan Howard is a sorority sister and also one of Ashley’s roommates. “I’ve never seen her, and I’m not saying there’s not a ghost, I just haven’t seen it,” she says. Both girls agree though that often doors seem to open spontaneously, and lights sometimes come on for no apparent reason.
“I personally don’t think there was enough room in the attic for her to hang herself,” Ashley remarked. She then led me up into the attic, which was filled with an assortment of boxes and suitcases, old lamp shades, and a half crushed green kiddy pool in one corner. But the musty smell and dismal darkness still produced an eerie milieu. Ashley pointed out a wooden beam towards the left of us. “She supposedly hung herself over there, right above my room.” Ashley’s words contained a hint of trepidation and her mouth slanted with a slight smile. The beam did appear rather short, but anyone under 5’7” surely could have noosed themselves there.
Upon leaving the A.G.D. house, I turned back and looked up towards the attic window, and just for a moment—I thought I saw— but no, it was just the shadow of a tree glimmering though the glass.
This was my first sojourn to a supposed “haunted house” because I was on a quest to learn about some of the local ghost stories in Athens. Whether they are true or not, such stories fascinate me because not only is the supernatural realm mystifying but also the fact that these tales exist reveal a romantic edge to family histories, as well as those who believe in them. In stories of rejected lovers, unhappy servants, and those who just refuse to leave this world, all of them involve one of the most perturbing and intriguing subjects: the afterlife.
I’ve never had a ghostly encounter, although after my cat died when I was eleven I swore I saw his apparition on the end of my bed one night later that week. But in hindsight I’m sure it was my overworked imagination. However, according to a poll done by Parents magazine, 33 percent of those polled said that they believe there are spirits or ghosts that make their presence known to people.
Even though a lot of people tend to believe in ghosts, I wanted to ask someone who belonged to a church.
“I believe that there is certainly a supernatural world,” remarked Pastor Stewert Simms, who preaches at Beechaven Baptist Church in Athens. “And I believe in malevolent beings that can manifest themselves in the physical world, but I don’t believe in typical ghosts.”
Several of the ghost stories I’ve discovered in Athens involve either sorority or fraternity houses, but I also learned about the spirit of a Confederate General from the nineteenth century who evidently roams the halls of an administration building on the university campus, so I decided to check it out.
According to legend the Lustrat House— which is currently the President’s office on campus— is haunted nightly by Major Charles Morris, who first occupied the house when it was built in the late 1840s. He was known as an eccentric man and after he died in the house, the University began using it as a faculty residence.
When I visited the building the secretaries there either knew too little about the story or they claimed they couldn’t really talk about it. I was referred to Nash Boney, a guide for Athens Historical Tours. I asked him about the haunting and whether or not he believed in it.
“No. That’s crap,” he said with a voice that sounded like an odd hybrid of an Irish and a southern accent. But what about the noises people have heard there at night? “Maybe it’s mice in the attic or something,” he replied with a scoff.
The Lustrat house has been moved once, according to Nash, and many sections of the house have been redecorated or boarded off. Several pieces of antique furniture still occupy the halls and some of the main rooms, but when I looked around for a rocking chair— which the misty form of the Major is said to rock in every night— I couldn’t seem to find it. Perhaps someone figured the simple solution to dispel of that rumor was to just remove the chair. But if he does exist, I hope General Morris isn’t angry about his seat being taken.
The Phi Mu house on Milledge stands as a magnificent old home decorated with an abundance of arabesque wrought iron work, and it is also the sight of another supposed ghost. Gail Garner, who stayed in the house one summer in 1969 while attending college, claims that her name is Anna Hamilton. Gail said that she and her friends had heard the sound of someone crying at the top of the staircase several times, and each time someone went to check it out, no one would be there. They decided to play with a Ouija board to find out who (or what) it was. The board spelled out Anna Hamilton. Gail thought little of it until one of her friends decided to go to the library and get information on the history of the house, and by doing this they learned that an Anna Hamilton had lived in the house next door.
They used the Ouija board to ask more questions, and through it they learned that the Phi Mu house was once owned by the Phinizy family and the Hamiltons lived next door. According to the Ouija board, Anna haunted the house because her fiancé, Giles Phinizy, was shot and killed by another Phinizy in a jealous rage on the front steps of the house while she stood there watching. Supposedly the murder was covered up and Giles was buried under the front steps of the Phinizy house.
“We investigated in the library,” Gail said. “But I could not find a member of the Phinizy family named Giles. Ann (her friend) even went to visit Mrs. Secrest who was a descendent of the Phinizy family and had lived in the Phi Mu house as a little girl. She talked freely of those days and knew Anna Hamilton.” Gail also said that Ann asked the woman about a possible murder and Mrs. Secrest got highly upset and said she knew nothing about it.
Of course, all of this is a little shaky since the information came from a Ouija board. I played with a board once when I was a kid and it would say the wildest things. Gail realizes this but it still confounds her to this day.
“It knew these names of actual people who we had never heard of. That was an exciting summer,” Gail said with a laugh. “But it was one of the strangest things in the world to experience.”
Another house laden with ghostly history is the Barrow-Tate House on Dearing Street. Mrs. Susan Barrow Tate has claimed to have seen two ghosts in the house, and her son Jeff Tate now resides in the home. I made plans to visit one rainy afternoon, and I drove up to an enormous house half hidden in overgrown shrubs and trees. The home was built in 1879, and apparently hadn’t been painted since then because the white paint was chipping to the point where the house looked as though it suffered from severe dandruff. I toiled my way though the maze of wet weeds and bushes until I reached the front porch, where a man who closely resembled the Colonel of KFC greeted me as he sat in a rocking chair. After meeting him I ascertained that Jeff Tate is the definitive southern gentleman, who throughout the interview seemed to have an affinity for quoting Mark Twain and smoking cigars. He proceeded to show me around the house, which was brimming with terrific antiques, old oil portraits and a ton of uncanny ambiance. The attic contained a spooky number of old dolls and baby cradles, along with more portraits, books and antiques. Jeff also pointed out a hidden staircase which is now boarded up. I asked him if he ever saw any spirits.
“I never even talk about it,” he laughs. “I’ve never seen any ghost, but it gives me the creeps sometimes.” He told me that at night the house is constantly making noises because the pine wood is so old it cracks and makes creaking sounds. When he first began staying there it terrified him.
Jeff said his mother had seen the ghost known as “Uncle Pope,” the brother of the original owner, as well as a man named York who used to work there in the gardens. “Uncle Pope is the one we always blame when anything happens,” he said with a grin. “He’s a good ghost. He re-arranges things occasionally, but he’s not bad.”
Once I’d left the house and was safely in my car, I breathed a sigh relief. Of the stories I’d heard and places I’d seen in this investigation, the Barrow-Tate house seemed the most valid. As I drove away I watched the house fade into the misty weather through my rearview window, wondering if the spirits would be roaming the halls of the place that night. I was glad I lived on the other end of town.
Of the stories I investigated, few people seemed to have actually witnessed a ghostly apparition and no one seemed to have had a “bad” run in with a ghost. When many of us think of hauntings we immediately conjure up the nasty specter images from movies such as Poltergiest. What I did find out was that several homes in town have a colorful history and perhaps even a possible supernatural occupant or two, but no one has been attacked by a possessed clown doll or have been sucked into a television set.
Of course it’s better that none of this has happened, but it certainly would have been more chilling. The stories did not fail in intriguing me nonetheless.
It seems possible that most of these stories were simply started for fun. Maybe they were built up as fact as years went by because they sounded so romantic and because they added a different, more mysterious color to the college town. Perhaps these stories actually say more about the living then about those who have died. That we are all amazed by death, and we are all curious as to what lies beyond this world.
“I think there are other explanations for supposed ghosts,” says Pastor Simms. “I think the fascination with it all comes from the truth that there is a spiritual world. It has led people into all sorts of investigations, and it reflects the hunger in the human heart to know God.”
Written in 1998 for an Advanced Magazine Writing class at UGA