Haunted Past

Written By: Doug Dodson | Photographed By: AJ Green

Wilmington has been around for about 300 years, which is plenty of time for ghosts of all shapes, sizes, and sexes to become part of our collective lore. We have ghost tours of the historic district, haunted pub tours, and multiple books on the hauntings of the Cape Fear region. (How could something called Cape “Fear” not be crawling with ghosts?) Even a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic like myself is a sucker for a good spectral tale. The spine-chilling fright of a well-told ghostly yarn is enough to make me forget the commercial underpinnings which drive the world’s ghost industry.

The question I want to ask is, “Does Wilmington have more ghosts than other towns of similar size?” I want to ask, but I’m not willing to do the research involved, so let’s just assume that we do have more ghosts based on our advanced age and our status as an important port going back to pirate days. (The river and the ships that ply its waters are involved in a few of the best local ghost tales.)

A quick survey of our more famous ghosts includes the haunting of the U.S.S. North Carolina battleship, Thalian Hall, the St. James graveyard at Market and Fourth, and dozens of our historic homes, including the Bellamy Mansion and Latimer House. The alleys downtown, which have existed from the beginning, were frequented by pirates, thugs and a large murderous barmaid with a habit of cutting off the ears of misbehaving customers. Captain Harper’s house on Front Street and his ships are the source of multiple ghost stories from the turn of the last century. The Burgwin­-Wright house, which served as General Lord Cornwallis’ headquarters during the Revolutionary War, has ghost stories galore, some connected to the house’s basement, which started life as Wilmington’s jail, and later became Cornwallis’ torture chamber (if the tales are to be believed.)

It makes sense that a graveyard would engender ghost stories, but the St. James Episcopal graveyard downtown is special for many reasons. It has existed since the middle of the eighteenth century, with tombstones so worn that the words are illegible. On a fog shrouded night it is the definition of a spooky old graveyard. It used to be larger, but the widening of Fourth Street claimed many of its residents, who had to be relocated. (That can’t make a spirit happy. Does anybody enjoy moving?) That same Fourth Street was the place where yellow fever victims were stacked like lumber. (Again, not something to make a spirit rest in peace.) And if that all weren’t enough, the most famous ghost story of the Cape Fear region takes place within its rusted iron fence. I won’t tell the tale here, but if you want to read it, just search the name Samuel Jocelyn. Let’s just say that in the days before embalming, Mr. Jocelyn met his maker twice.

If you like a good ghost story, I encourage you to check out one of the locally written books on our haunted past, or take a ghost tour of downtown. If you go on Halloween you will be among hundreds wandering the brick and cobblestone streets, seeking the macabre thrill of a night in haunted Wilmington.

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