Wednesday, May 4, 2011

William Winston House

Deshler High School Campus
200 Northeast Commons Street
Tuscumbia, Alabama

William Winston House, 2010. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith.
From the George F. Landegger Collection of Alabama Photographs
in Carol Highsmith's America, Library of Congress, Prints and
Photographs Division.

In recent days, tremendous storms and tornados cut their way across the South. The storms affected Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee and especially hard hit was Alabama. Northern Alabama felt the brunt of the storm in urban areas like Tuscaloosa, Birmingham and Huntsville; but also in small towns like Cullman, Rainsville and a little town in Franklin County with the unusual name, Phil Campbell. Just north of Franklin County is Colbert County and its seat, Tuscumbia. It was here that a tornado in the late nineteenth century left a spiritual mark.

On November 22, 1874, as a tornado bore down upon her home, Judith Winston, the stern (from the appearance of her photograph) lady of the house tried to take cover. She failed and was crushed beneath rubble. Her sons pulled her from the wreckage still alive, but she lived only a little while. According to Debra Johnson, she breathed her last in the front bedroom on the eastern side of the house.

Tuscumbia, Alabama began its rise to prominence as the town of Occocopoosa along the military road completed in 1820 by General Andrew Jackson that linked Tennessee with Louisiana. The town’s name was changed to Big Spring in 1821 and the next year to Tuscumbia. The richness of the area’s land and the abundance of game brought settlers to the area along with business and soon the railroad. Tuscumbia rose as one of the leading cities in the region.

Among early settlers were members of the prominent Winston family. Descended from Captain Anthony Winston, a cousin of Dolly Madison and Patrick Henry, the Winston’s had fought at the side of Andrew Jackson and acquired land in Virginia, Tennessee and finally Alabama. Further descendents would serve as governors of both Alabama and Mississippi as well as a senator from Alabama.

William Winston began construction on this magnificent edifice in 1824 and it was completed nine years later. This Georgian house is the largest remaining antebellum house in the city. The house remained in private hands until 1948 when it was purchased by the City of Tuscumbia for the new campus of Deshler High School. Restoration efforts began on the house in the early 1980s and these efforts were boosted by the home being placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. Since that time, the home has served as a house museum and events space.

The magnificent "flying staircase" in the Winston House, 2010.
Photo by Carol M. Highsmith. From the George F. Landegger Collection
of Alabama Photographs in Carol Highsmith's America, Library of
Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Mrs. Winston may be the source of some rather interesting phenomena that has occurred in the house. One woman setting up chairs for her daughter’s wedding was disturbed by the chairs rattling by themselves. Upset by the odd occurrence, the woman questioned the home’s curator and was told that Mrs. Winston simply wanted an invitation to the event. Once the mother of the bride issued an oral invitation, the rattling ceased. Debra Johnston also credits Judith Winston’s spirit with the “weeping walls” in the downstairs entry hall when there is the threat of a storm.

Jessica Penot, author of Haunted North Alabama and the Ghost Stories and Haunted Places Blog, identifies one of the spirits in the home as William Winston, the home’s builder. She states that his spirit has been seen standing at the top of the stairs and wandering through the halls. She also speaks of white figures seen through the windows of the house at night after it is closed.

     Encyclopedia. Accessed 1 May 2011.
Garfrerick, Beth. “National Register Nomination Boosts
     Tuscumbia Restoration.” The (Tuscumbia, AL)Times-Daily.
     21 January 1982.
Johnston, Debra. Skeletons in the Closet: True Ghost Stories
     of The Shoals Area. Debra Johnston, 2002.
Penot, Jessica. Haunted North Alabama. Charleston, SC:
     History Press, 2010.
Thornton, Linda. “Tuscumbia.” Encyclopedia of Alabama. 22
     May 2009.


  1. I love the Winston House. It was a chapter in Haunted North Alabama. I found some kids from the high school who did a ghost hunt there and posted their footage on youtube. It is a lot of fun to watch.

  2. LOVE those stairs. Would like to see this place for myself. Since AL's so close, maybe I will just take a jaunt down there some day... (Assuming it wasn't among the casualties of their tornadoes, that is.) Great post.

  3. Courtney,

    I'm pretty sure it survived. I haven't heard anything about tornados in Tuscumbia, though I think Colbert County may have been affected. Perhaps Jessica knows more?

    However, I have watched the news from Tuscaloosa with a heavy heart and I've wondered if the Drish Mansion survived. From what I can tell, it was very near the hardest hit areas of the city and while being architecturally and historically significant, it is also a popular location for paranormal groups.

    1. The Drish mansion is still standing and is actually for sale. It did not suffer damage in the tornado but will require a good bit of renovation by the purchaser. Beautiful place!

  4. Having went to Deshler HS there are many students who have claimed to have seen figures. Classes used to be held in the home many many years ago. Tornadoes are notorious in this area however it is in a very small town so usually it is referred to as Muscle Shoals or the Shoals area.

  5. I also graduated from Deshler and had an English class in the building and didn't see anything unusual. However last year on one of the trolley tours that stopped at the building, I have a photo showing a face in a mirror looking at the group visiting. It's very much still standing, the tornadoes were east and south of us. I did a historical calendar for Tuscumbia this year and it is one of the pictures in it.

  6. I graduated from Deshler, and was on the committe that helped restore the Winston Home. I love that place. I miss Tuscumbia.

  7. Just found out about the William Winston home in Tuscumbia. Was doing some research on my family and realized that my great great great great grandfather (William Winston) built the home. My interest was spawned from a portrait I have of him hanging in my dining room that my dad allowed me to display. Looking forward to visiting Tuscumbia soon.

    1. Be sure to say hello to the ghosts, when you visit!