Haunted Charleston: The Lady in White at the Unitarian Churchyard

Published: Oct. 25, 2018 at 10:26 AM EDT
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CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Anywhere you walk in Charleston there is more than likely a story.

Stories of those who used to live here, and stories of some who maybe still do even after they’ve passed away.

In the first part of our Haunted Charleston series – we take you to the second oldest church in Charleston: The Unitarian Church off Archdale Street.

Construction began on the Unitarian Church in 1772, making it the oldest Unitarian church in the South.

With that title – also comes one of the oldest graveyards.

The graveyard at the Unitarian Church is just one of those places that looks terrifying even in the daylight.

“The mystery of this graveyard is that the Unitarians don’t believe in disturbing the people that are buried in here,” said Randy Neale, a guide with Tour Charleston.

Among the overgrown vines and greenery – is said to walk the “Lady in White.”

“The best description is from the guests on the tour,” Neale said. “They put it this way – there was a woman in a wedding dress standing behind you while you were speaking. And this has happened several dozen times.”

There are several stories surrounding who the Lady in White may be, according to Neale.

The story that many believe fits best – is that of a woman named Anna.

“A young woman named Anna Ravenel who met a young soldier who was stationed at Fort Moultrie. His name was Edward Allen,” Neale said.

Edward and Anna fell madly in love but Anna’s father didn’t approve of the relationship and he forbade Anna from seeing Edward Allen. But she apparently kept sneaking out of the house to try and meet him. So, Mr. Ravenel had Edward Allen transferred out of Fort Moultrie to a fort up near Baltimore. Anna was heartbroken and got very sick.

"Edward Allen rushed back here to be with her but he got here too late,” Neale explained. “She was already dead. When he tried to go to the funeral, the family stopped him at the front door of the church and threw him out. Apparently Mr. Ravenel blamed Edgar Allen for his daughter’s death." Mr. Ravenel was so bitter - the family came into the Unitarian Churchyard, dug six different graves and filled them in. But they never put up a headstone for Anna so Edward would not be able to find her grave and mourn at it. "Eventually Edward Allen went to WestPoint but was thrown out,” Neale said. “He was not fit to be in the army. He was a very troubled young man. He had insomnia. He drank too much. He used drugs. And then he died fairly young himself." It turns out that during his lifetime -- Edward Allen was mildly successful. After his death, though, he became famous.

“He was a writer and he wrote under the name Edgar Allen Poe – which was his real name,” Neale said. “Edward Allen was his stepfather’s name that he used when he lied his way into the army." Many believe the poem "Annabel Lee" was about Anna Ravenel. It just so happens, it was also the last poem Poe ever wrote.

“The poem ‘Annabel Lee’ so closely mirrors what could possibly have happened and transpired between Edgar Allen Poe and Anna Ravenel,” Neale said. “When I listen to these words it’s easy enough for me to picture Poe, maybe every night of his life, dreaming of himself lying down beside his Anna in her grave somewhere in the churchyard. And maybe that’s why he couldn’t sleep. Why he drank. Why he turned to drugs. But it’s also easy enough for me to imagine the “Lady in White” might be Anna wandering among her six graves – waiting for her love to join her.

Annabel Lee

By Edgar Allen Poe

It was many and many a year ago,

In a kingdom by the sea,

That a maiden there lived whom you may know

By the name of Annabel Lee;

And this maiden she lived with no other thought

Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,

In this kingdom by the sea,

But we loved with a love that was more than love—

I and my Annabel Lee—

With a love that the wingèd seraphs of Heaven

Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,

In this kingdom by the sea,

A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling

My beautiful Annabel Lee;

So that her highborn kinsmen came

And bore her away from me,

To shut her up in a sepulchre

In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,

Went envying her and me—

Yes!—that was the reason (as all men know,

In this kingdom by the sea)

That the wind came out of the cloud by night,

Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love

Of those who were older than we—

Of many far wiser than we—

And neither the angels in Heaven above

Nor the demons down under the sea

Can ever dissever my soul from the soul

Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams

Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes

Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side

Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,

In her sepulchre there by the sea—

In her tomb by the sounding sea.

“Because the Unitarians accept anyone into their graveyard – some are not very nice,” Neale said.

Some people believe the “Lady in White” could be a woman named Lavinia Fisher. She is said to be the first convicted, female, mass murderer in American history. Lavinia and her husband apparently owned an inn out in the countryside and they would prey on single male travelers. They would befriend them, Lavinia would feed them tea, the tea was drugged and, when they were drowsy or asleep, they would slit their throats and rob them. They were found out and brought back to Charleston to stand trial. They were convicted of eight murders but some people speculate they may have killed more people than that. As was the custom, officials took them down to the Charleston Waterfront to be hanged. They took Lavinia’s husband first and when they asked him if he had any last words he begged to be forgiven for what they had done and prayed for God’s mercy. When it was Lavinia’s turn, they asked her if she had any last words.

“I have nothing to say to God because I’ll be dancing with the devil in the morning,” Lavinia apparently said.

Neale went on to say he doesn’t believe the “Lady in White” is Lavinia though.

“I tend to think it’s not her though because of her last words,” Neale said. “I think she might have gotten her last wish and she’s somewhere else right now.”

The story goes that a woman by the name of Mary Whitridge is buried in one of the graves at the Unitarian Churchyard. She and her husband lived in Mount Pleasant across the Cooper River. Edward was sickly all his life – he had breathing problems and was a chain smoker. Eventually he got so sick they tried to send him to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.

On the sea voyage, he passed away. By law, they had to take his body to the coroner in Baltimore. They wrote a letter to Mary asking her what they should do with the body. They never got an answer. So eventually Edward was buried in a pauper’s graveyard in Baltimore.

Eventually, people figured out the reason the letters weren’t answered is because Mary was walking upstairs to the bedroom in their house and she collapsed and died. Apparently, she died on the same day that Edward had died. Mary is buried in Edward’s family’s plot – and there is an empty space next to Mary’s grave in the corner. That is where Edward was supposed to be buried.

Some people believe the “Lady in White” is Mary looking for her lost husband.

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