Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Revisiting Ezekiel Harris—The Ezekiel Harris House, Augusta, Georgia

N.B. This is an edit and repost of the very first location I wrote about for this blog, back in August of last year. I’ve combined what was originally two separate entries, updated some information and added pictures.

1822 Broad Street
Augusta, Georgia

One of the very first books of ghost I read was the late Kathryn Tucker Windham’s 13 Georgia Ghosts and Jeffrey. Windham’s books covering various Southern states broke ground as some of the first books on the folklore of many of these areas. These books create an important foundation for writing about Southern ghosts. Being among the first stories I read a child, I figured this would be a good location to start with. We’ll start with the history books.

Sign on the back gate of the Ezekiel Harris House, 2011.
Photo by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.

The city of Augusta was laid out on the orders of the founder of Georgia, General James Oglethorpe, in 1736, three years after the establishment of the Georgia colony. Named for Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, wife of the Prince of Wales, the city was one of the first inland cities founded in the colony. It is located roughly 127 miles northwest of Savannah at the end of the navigable portion of the Savannah River. The city briefly became the capital of Georgia in 1779 after the fall of Savannah during the American Revolution, but the city also soon fell to British forces. The British held the city briefly and then recaptured and held it from May 1780 to June 1781.

Just before the outbreak of hostilities, the Augusta region was placed under the purview of Thomas Brown by Royal Governor James Wright. Brown was a wealthy Englishman who, with a boatload of indentured servants, created the settlement of Brownsborough, north of Augusta. Anti-British sympathy had begun to smolder in the area and Brown worked hard to stamp out the rebellious feelings of groups like the Sons of Liberty. As an example to other Loyalists, the group captured Brown and subjected to tarring and feathering, a horrifically painful and sometimes fatal ordeal. Escaping the city, Brown travelled to South Carolina where, upon recovery, he began to gather Loyalists about him to fight the revolutionary threat. Brown returned to the city with troops in tow in May of 1780 quite possibly hell-bent on revenge.

Upon entering Augusta again, Brown began quickly exacting measures against its patriot inhabitants, stripping those families of their possessions and expelling them from the colony. Others were arrested and put to death. These actions soon spread beyond the limits of Augusta and throughout British-controlled Georgia and South Carolina. Under Brown’s orders, a contingent of soldiers travelled north of the city to what is now Lincoln County, Georgia and murdered revolutionary leader Colonel John Dooley in his home.

On September 14th, 1780, Colonel Elijah Clarke, commander of the revolutionary forces that had been dogging the British in the area for some time, attacked an Indian village near Augusta, this putting Brown in notice that they were in the area. American forces pushed towards Mackay’s Trading Post, also called the White House, situated outside the city of Augusta near the Savannah River. Brown reinforced his forces which held the trading post with British regulars and allied Native Americans. The Americans laid siege to the trading post and the surrounding area, a siege that would last nearly four days.

The American forces retreated in the morning of the 18th having sustained nearly sixty casualties, but it’s the proceeding events that really concern us. Charles C. Jones, Jr. spells the story out quite grotesquely in his 1890 Memorial History of Augusta, Georgia:
Thus did Captain Ashby, an officer noted for his bravery and humanity, and twenty-eight soldiers fell into the hands of the enemy. He and twelve of the wounded prisoners were forthwith hung upon the staircase of the White House, where Brown was lying wounded, that he might enjoy the demonical pleasure of gloating over their expiring agonies. Their bodies were then delivered to the Indians, who, after scalping and mutilating them, threw them into the river. Henry Duke, John Burgamy, Scott Reeden, Jordan Ricketson, Darling, and the two brothers Glass, youths seventeen and fifteen years of age, were choked to death under a hastily constructed gibbet. Their fate, however, was mild when contrasted with that reserved for the other prisoners who were delivered into the hands of the Indians that they might be avenged of the losses which they had sustained during the siege.

Back of the house. The staircase is behind the horizontal beams.
Photo 2011, by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.

This event was noted in a letter by Governor Wright to King George III: “Thirteen of the Prisoners who broke their Paroles & came against Augusta have been hang’d, which I hope will have a very good effect.” Windham notes that the number thirteen represented each of the rebellious American colonies. Though the Americans were repelled after this first siege and Thomas Brown was able to construct a small fortress closer to town, named Fort Cornwallis, British controlled Augusta was eventually broken following a siege in May of 1781.

Ezekiel Harris House, 1934 before it was purchased and restored.
Photo by Branan Sanders for the Historic American Building
Survey (HABS), courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and
Photographs Division.

Fast forwarding ahead 165 years to 1946, the Richmond County Historical Society purchased an 18th century house near the river believing it to be the infamous Mackay Trading Post. Accoring to Cherie Pickett, an associate with Historic Augusta in a 1999 article in The Augusta Chronicle (notably one of the oldest American newspapers still in print), historians clung steadfastly to the idea that this building was the Mackay Trading Post for many years, with architectural historians and archaeologists possibly skewing their results to lend credence. Even more importantly to our cause, the Writers’ Project of the WPA recorded stories about the “White House” haunting in 1938 among many other noted Georgia ghost stories.

Front door, 1934. Photo by Branan
Sanders, for HABS, courtesy of the
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs
Division.
Front door, 2011. Photo by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.

Mrs. Windham’s 1973 book gave wings to the story, enshrining it in the Southern folklore tradition. Windham recounts the legends that had grown up about the house. These legends state that visitors standing in the stairwell and slowly counting to thirteen would sometimes hear the thud of the thirteen men as they are hung or moaning of the dying men. Additionally, a female spirit has been seen wandering the second story as if searching for someone. Many have indentified this spirit as Mrs. Glass, the mother of the two executed brothers. Windham adds wistfully that this spirit is said to hold her hands out in supplication, perhaps begging the spirit of Colonel Brown for a reprise for her sons.

But, there’s a problem. There had been questions for many years about the history of the building preserved and indentified as the Mackay Trading Post. Mary Mackay, mother-in-law to the post’s owner, Andrew McLean, remarked upon seeing the damaged structure after the battle, “I have never seen such destruction.” The building identified as the trading post, however, showed no evidence of damage. A 1975 study by the state of Georgia confirmed that the house was not the Mackay Trading Post and that the misidentified house was likely built almost two decades later. As a result, the house was renamed the Ezekiel Harris House after the first known owner and the possible builder. Interestingly, some have said that the house, which was called by the Smithsonian Institute’s Guide to Historic America, “the finest 18th Century house in the state of Georgia,” would likely have never been purchased and restored had it not been mistakenly identified as the scene for such the bloody events of the American Revolution.

The Harris House today. Photo 2011, by Lewis Powell IV, all
rights reserved.
Another view of the front. Photo 2011, by Lewis Powell IV,
all rights reserved.

So, if the Ezekiel Harris House is not the Mackay Trading Post, are there still ghosts? Well, historians researching this first siege of Augusta have noted that the trading post was located somewhere in the vicinity of the Harris house, though the exact spot is unknown. We do know, however, that Ezekiel Harris, a tobacco merchant, built this house around 1797, though the exact date is unknown. Scott A. Johnson, author of The Mayor’s Guide to the Stately Ghosts of Augusta, posits that the ghosts may simply have taken up in the house after its construction. According to him, visitors still report odd occurrences on the staircase that includes the feeling of having a rope about your neck. He also reports that the female ghost is commonly seen as well.

It’s not uncommon for spirits to take up in a nearby structure if their regular haunt has been destroyed, but some remained unconvinced that this is the case here. Ben Baughman, manager of the house for the Augusta Museum, which has controlled the property since 2004, stated that he has had no experiences in the house. In 2006, two videos appeared on YouTube showing an investigation of the house. The first part of the video shows part of the usual tour of the house being led by Mr. Baughman as well as his docent’s spiel about the house’s history. The second video shows the beginning of a night investigation involving a Ouija board. The video ends just as the Ouija board is produced and there is no part II. So there is no indication that anything was discovered.

Interestingly, one of the females on the video states that the female apparition is probably not Mrs. Glass, but more likely Mrs. Ezekiel Harris. History may back her up on that assumption. While there are few records relating to either Mr. or Mrs. Harris, those that remain on Mr. Harris reveal that he was an ambitious businessman with some legal problems including an accusation of murder. In one surviving letter from 1805, Mr. Harris describes his wife as having breast cancer. She died the following year, quite possibly in the house. This does leave open the possibility that the spirit may be her still worrying over her husband’s troubles or the cancer in her breast.

The remainder of the home’s history may be relatively free of violence. The house was owned by two other families before being bought by the company constructing the Sibley Mill. The house was turned into a boarding house and the porch of the upper story was enclosed. Of course, as a boarding house, there may have been some violence and some tenants may not have left.

Mill in view of the house. Photo 2011, by Lewis Powell IV,
all rights reserved.

As for the question of whether this house in haunted, I cannot say. I would be interested in seeing the results of any paranormal investigations on the location. Certainly, with its age and history ghosts are likely, but I have not seen a single, identifiable report of paranormal activity. In other words, the descriptions of activity are always general and cannot be linked to any specific individual.

Postscript

Back in July, I finally visited the Ezekiel Harris House for the first time. Presumably due to budget cuts, tours of the house are now by appointment only and I only had time to take a few pictures and ponder the forlorn house from outside the white picket fence surrounding it. The house is a bit unkempt with grass needing mowing, a dead kitchen garden and a falling chimney. Even in that state, the house is a commanding presence, situated on a high hill with a vista of the grand Sibley Mill in the distance. I wonder if the spirits enjoy the solitude.

Crumbling chimney. Photo 2011, by Lewis Powell IV, all
rights reserved.

Dying kitchen garden. Photo 2011, by Lewis Powell IV, all
rights reserved.

Sources
     Tour.” YouTube. 12 September 2006.
     Investigation." YouTube. 9 December 2006.
Cashin, Edward J. “Augusta.” The New Georgia Encyclopedia.
     Accessed 19 February 2007.
Johnson, Scott A. The Mayor’s Guide to the Stately Ghosts of
     Augusta. Augusta, GA: Harbor House, 2005.
Jones, Charles C. Jr. and Samuel Dutcher. Memorial History
     Of Augusta, Georgia. Syracuse, NY: D. Mason & Co., 1890.
Killion, Ronald G. and Charles T. Waller. A Treasury of Georgia
     Folklore. Atlanta, GA: Cherokee Publishing, 1972.
Kirby, Bill. “The legend of this old house.” The Augusta
     Chronicle. 24 July 2010.
“Urban legends add mystique to Harris House.” The Augusta
     Chronicle. 20 June 1999.
Windham, Kathryn Tucker. 13 Georgia Ghosts and Jeffrey.
     Tuscaloosa, AL: The U. of Alabama Press, 1973.

5 comments:

  1. My great grandfather owned this house in the early 1900's.His name was James T. Nash Sr. My grandfather ,aunt and uncle grew up here and my cousin Tom Reynolds was the last person born here.My Aunt "Ruth Nash Reynolds" burned the original kitchen down around 1915. No ghost here my grandfather said.His Mother died while living here.

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  5. I am related to Ephraim Darling and Jordan Ricketson. They were 2 of the men hung in the Mackay house by the British. Ephraim is a direct descendent of mine...6 generations.

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