Ghost Tours Turn Women's Abuse into Family Friendly Entertainment
As a ghost tour guide in Savannah, Georgia, I recounted stories about women being raped, abused, and killed.
Image via Rod Herrea/Flickr
Savannah, Georgia is a city of death. It hangs in the air as thickly as the summer humidity, and Savannah's unofficial designation as "The Most Haunted City in America" draws thousands of tourists every year.
The city's appearance hides its ghostly reputation. Tourists also visit Savannah for its beauty, and some residents allege Union General William Tecumseh Sherman spared the city because he couldn't bear to burn down a beautiful city. The truth is Sherman wanted the city's cotton and ammunition supply, not its architecture. Over 200 years later, visitors will find haunted house-style buildings within the boundaries of the Historic District. (They're all north of Gaston Street.) An unsuspecting visitor could wander through the lavish mansions without knowing about any of the horrors that took place.
That was my job.
For nine months after I graduated college, I worked as a guide on a popular evening ghost tour. After I learned all the stories in the company's script (it took me three months), I spent most evenings entertaining tourists from across the country. A few stories came across as fairly light, but most repackaged the rape, abuse, and lynching of vulnerable women into family friendly entertainment.
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The tour started out with the tale of Bo-Cat Delancey. In the company's retelling, he murdered his wife during the Great Depression to cash in her life insurance policy. If the tour trolley didn't suffer a major transmission failure at the end of River Street, the tour would continue and begin to loop its way around historic landmarks across the city.
At Wright Square, the location of the courthouse and the city gallows, I told the story of Alice Riley, a young Irish indentured servant who authorities accused of murdering her master. Riley was sent to work for William Wise, an old man sent across the Savannah River to Hutchinson's Island after he tried to travel from England to Savannah with a prostitute he claimed was his daughter. Wise's shitty behavior didn't stop there, and my scripted mentioned the "unwanted advances" he made as Riley bathed him. I then talked about how she used her "feminine wiles" to convince another servant named Richard White to help her murder Wise. The couple allegedly strangled and drowned Wise. Shortly after the death, authorities caught the accused killers. Riley announced her pregnancy at the trial, but the town hanged her anyways. Her son son died shortly after her execution.
Recently, several historians unearthed new information: In court Riley depicted Richard White as the mastermind behind the murder plot. She said he coerced her into helping him, not the way around. Additionally, there was a great deal of anti-Irish, anti-Catholic sentiment in Savannah at the time, which may have come into play at the trial.
But why let something as inconsequential as historic research stop tourists from enjoying a soap opera about a desperate teenage girl who wanted to escape an abusive work situation?
After we circled around Wright Square, the tour continued towards Madison Square and the Sorrel-Weed House. The mansion was built in in 1841. According to rumors, the builders dug up bodies belonging to soldiers killed in the square during the 1779 Siege of Savannah.
This isn't why the house was featured on the tour. I told my guests about Francis and Matilda Moxley Sorrel, the wealthy well-connected couple who owned the house and frequently entertained General Robert E. Lee. Following the company script, I told the factually flawed story of how Matilda committed suicide after walking in on her husband Francis "in the throes of passion" with "a Haitian slave woman named Molly."
Let me strip away the script's bullshit: Matilda may have committed suicide after she discovered her husband had raped his slave, and in the story, Molly's suffering didn't end there. At the tale's conclusion, a group of men, who some locals allege may have been Francis and his sons, lynched her.
After I finished telling the family version of the Sorrel story, I played a glitchy recording of an Electronic Vocal Phenomenon (EVP) taken during the Atlantic Paranormal Society's 2005 investigation of the house. On the fuzzy, staticky tape, a woman screams, "Help! Get out! Oh my God!" Every night, I asked guests what they had heard, and white tourists always made smarts comments. Once, on a charter tour for auto parts managers, a man yelled, "Sounds like my regional manager!" His buddies all laughed.
While doing research for this story I ran across something even more disturbing: The entire tale could be fake. According to ghost blogger James Caskey, there are issues with the story's timeline. He says his research shows a lack of census records for Molly, and the Sorrel family moved out of the house nine months before Matilda's death. Either a powerful man raped and lynched one of his slaves in the Sorrel-Weed House, or someone decided to make up a story about Francis Sorrel raping a slave to drive tourist interest in the house.
At work, though, I feared men more than the ghosts.
During ghost tours, guests would occasionally ask if I'd ever seen a ghost, or exclaim with delight when they saw lens flares or specs of dust in their photos. I always bullshitted and talked about seeing strange figures in windows, or congratualted folks for capturing images of "orbs." My job was to feed into the city's mythology, not destroy it.
At work, though, I feared men more than the ghosts. Drunk tourists heckled me and tried to grab me. On my worst night, I kicked a rowdy group of ten drunk adults and one sober 4-year-old child off my tour. The men walked back to the beginning of the tour, with the intention of "teaching me [sic] a lesson." A coworker who resembled Wolverine convinced them to turn around.
All of Savannah's ghost stories are rooted firmly in the city's past. People are shocked to hear about men dueling behind Colonial Park Cemetery and tossing the loser's body over the fence into the graveyard, as if men suddenly stopped solving conflicts with violence at the turn of the 21st century. Just last week, a County Commissioner allegedly brandished a gunafter a contentious town hall debate.
According to local legend, Alice Riley wanders around Wright Square, searching for her dead son, right where a drive-by shooting recently injured a man on the corner of West Oglethorpe Avenue and Bull Street. I don't know if that man will be featured in a ghost tour.
Savannah is a beautifully adorned exquisite corpse, and the ghost tour industrial complex will continue to capitalize off the suffering of its dead to a captive audience of tourists.