Monday, January 27, 2014

Pillar of the community—Augusta, Georgia

Haunted Pillar
Intersection of Broad and 5th Streets
North Corner
Augusta, Georgia

“If you wouldn't mind,” I explained to my boyfriend, “I’d like to get my picture in front of the pillar, but I won’t touch it. Supposedly, if you touch it, you die. And I’m far too superstitious to risk it.”

“Well, he’s not,” my boyfriend said looking towards the infamous “Haunted Pillar.” Glancing across the street, I saw a young boy casually passing the landmark and running his hand along it as he passed. He seemed totally unaffected by the curse.

After dodging traffic, we finally crossed the street and approached the curious landmark. There’s not much to it, though it’s a bit taller than I assumed from pictures. Given its sinister name and legendary history, I expected something more frightening. Other than being located on a section of Broad Street that was dodgy, the pillar looks rather forlorn and innocent. Just behind it is a tattoo parlor bearing the name of the accursed column with a rather gaudy sign painted above it.

The Haunted Pillar with the Haunted Pillar Tattoo
Shop behind it. Photo 2014, by Lewis Powell IV,
all rights reserved.
The drab gray pillar glowers sourly in the middle of the sidewalk like a grumpy old man. After the rough history it has witnessed, I’m sure I’d glower too.

The pillar once proudly stood as part of the Old Lower Market in the middle of Broad Street. Built around 1830, Augusta’s market consisted of two buildings, two hundred feet long by one hundred feet wide. Under its expansive roof, agricultural goods were sold and traded; trade that possibly included slaves. As with any place that’s been tainted by the stench of slavery, the pillar’s history, both factual and legendary, still reeks with it. The historic marker near the pillar makes no statement as to the selling of slaves in the market but other sources involve the pillar with the inglorious industry.

Slavery is alluded to in the account of the Haunted Pillar collected in the mid to late 1930s by the WPA’s Writers’ Project. It mentions that at one point the pillar bore the hand print of a slave. Scott A. Johnson in his The Stately Ghosts of Augusta (2005) suggests that the pillar may have possibly been part of the slave-trading platform. Sean Joiner in his Haunted Augusta & Local Legends (2002) goes further by suggesting that the pillar’s curse may be “the residue of a curse being uttered by a man being sold into slavery.”

However, this is where slavery’s involvement in the story ends and the general legend takes up, jumping to the late 1870s. According to the legend, shortly before the night of February 8, 1878, an itinerant preacher began exhorting sinners within the market. Perhaps his condemnations drowned out the cries of vendors or his strong words upset customers, for whatever reason he was asked to leave. Before leaving, he warned those within earshot that a great storm would smash the building but leave one column standing; anyone attempting to move that lone column would most surely die.

In the early morning hours of February 8, 1878, the market’s destruction commenced as a rare mid-winter tornado ripped through downtown Augusta. In the flowery language of the period, Patrick Walsh, editor of The Augusta Chronicle editorialized: “While thousands slept in what seemed perfect security, tremendous agencies of destruction were abroad on the wings of the wind, and but for the mercy of heaven, few of the slumberers would have escaped.” Indeed, two slumberers did not escape and were killed a short distance from where the Broad Street sentinel now stands.

Later that day, the Chronicle reported that the market had been reduced to a pile of rubble. “The whole roof of the structure was thrown into a mass of ruins. Timbers were broken and many piled in utter confusion.” With a dramatic flourish, the reporter added that the market’s bell rang out as it crashed to the ground. Opinions on the market were quite strong as evidenced in papers published later that week: “It was, at best, an unsightly edifice and marred the grand boulevard upon which it was mistakenly located.”

But, among the broken timbers and toppled brick, the pillar remained standing like a scolding finger. At this point, the column’s history becomes murky again. Jim Miles writes in his 2000 book, Weird Georgia, that a local grocer, Theodore Eye of Lavasseur & Eye paid workmen to move the column the year after the market’s destruction. As the workmen began, a young boy set off a firecracker scaring the workers (and the horses as well, I imagine). The effort was abandoned.

Other attempts to move the column are not as well documented and include workmen being struck and killed by lightning while trying to move the column during a road-widening project. Another story mentions a bulldozer operator suddenly dying of a heart attack just as he begins moving towards the column. Like most legends, these are just embellishments that beef up the story.

The historic marker erected to briefly outline the pillar’s history mentions that the pillar has moved successfully at least once during its history. From other sources, it appears it has been moved a number of times. A 1997 article from The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution quotes the owner of a business across the street from the pillar as noting that “it’s been moved several times because it was too close to the street.”

The historic marker located at the original site of the pillar, in
the median of Broad Street. Photo 2014 by Lewis Powell IV,
all rights reserved.
Still there seems to be a mythos surrounding the cracking brick and cement creation. On two occasions, the pillar has been nearly demolished. In 1935, the pillar was struck by an automobile, but the driver was not injured. In 1958, on a Friday the 13th, the pillar was knocked over by a large bale of cotton from a truck. Again, the driver was uninjured. That incident led city leaders to move the pillar eight feet back from the street.

While the stories of deaths associated with the pillar seem to be urban legends, Jim Miles does note that there is apparently paranormal activity associated with the pillar. This includes the sounds of “whispered conversations between phantoms and footsteps of invisible beings pacing alongside.” The grim structure also seems to attract bad luck. The 1997 AJC article notes that the local sheriff counted eleven traffic accidents over the course of ten months of that year at the intersection where the pillar stands. The sense of bad luck was so forbidding that a group of people gathered that January to surround the pillar in an attempt to pray away the evil that possibly dwelt there.

While most locals scoff at the legend they still don’t touch it.

Posing with the pillar. I didn't touch it. Photo
2014 by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.
Both my boyfriend and I posed next to the pillar, but we also took care not to touch it. Neither of us needs any more bad luck in our lives.

“Augusta still haunted by tale of cursed pillar.” The Augusta Chronicle.
     29 August 2010.
Johnson, Scott A. The Mayor’s Guide: The Stately Ghosts of Augusta. Augusta,
     GA: Harbor House, 2005.
Joiner, Sean. Haunted Augusta & Local Legends. Coral Springs, FL, Llumina
     Press, 2002.
Killion, Ronald G. & Charles T. Waller. A Treasury of Georgia Folklore. Atlanta,
     GA: Cherokee Publishing, 1972.
Kirby, Bill. “Cyclone of 1878 left story to tell.” The Augusta Chronicle.
     8 February 2009.
Miles, Jim. Weird Georgia: Close Encounters, Strange Creatures & Unexplained
     Phenomena. Nashville, TN: Cumberland House, 2000.
Miles, Jim. Weird Georgia: Your Travel Guide to Georgia’s Local Legends and
     Best Kept Secrets. NYC: Sterling Publishing, 2006.
Scott, Peter. “Even the skeptical respect eerie Augusta landmark.” The
     Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution. 31 October 1997.