The slogan for Charleston, South Carolina is “where history lives.” This is true. The layers of Charleston history are laid out side by side, rather than mashed on top of each other. So if you aren’t finding what you want in Charleston, turn the corner.What I like about downtown Charleston is that there’s something different on every street – piracy here, the antebellum south there, colonial history, the Civil War and all of it seemingly, is haunted.
Stand on the corner of White Point Garden in the Battery with your back to the rail, close your eyes and breathe in. Charleston is a city you can smell – the ocean – the heat and sun cooking the architecture all around you, the restaurants and the scent, like the scenery, changes with every new neighborhood.
If there’s a breeze coming off Charleston Bay, this will likely be the coolest you’ll be all day. Better yet, lay down under a shade tree in White Point Garden and start your day lazy. The air gets thick in the Charleston summers, so you’re better off moving slowly.
White Point is only about three blocks long, but there’s a lot of history here. Charleston Harbor is the offspring of the Cooper and Ashley rivers colliding with the Atlantic Ocean. Originally called Oyster Point for the oyster shells along the shoreline, the name changed as the shells bleached with tide and time to White Point. Eventually the point was filled in and built up into what you see now.
Pirates were hung here; Stede Bonnet the gentleman pirate and his crew, as well as Richard Worley’s gang, but only Bonnet gets a marker. The Civil War started here with a roar as cannons belched hot steel at Fort Sumter out in Charleston Bay, and one of those cannons is still here, along with others from every era of conflict.
Charles Towne was named after King Charles II of Britain in 1670, a decision they’d come to regret by 1783 when they changed it to Charleston. The city wall came down in 1720, and you can still see remnants of the old city, from cobblestone streets to a single building, the Powder Magazine. It quickly became the fourth largest port in the American colonies, largely on the back of the deerskin trade. Soon another kind of skin was being traded, and by 1770 more than half the population was slaves.
Blackbeard captured Charleston without firing a shot in 1718, and held the town for several days while awaiting for needed supplies, most important, treatment for venereal disease. You can still get a feel for the days of piracy in Charleston in the architecture of two buildings in the French Quarter, the Pirate House, and the Pink House, once a brothel serving the culinary needs and vices of pirates and other ne’er do wells and now an art gallery. There’s even a pirate tour, complete with pirate guide available, though in truth, the number of pirate sites in Charleston is pretty slim. A lot of pirates came through Charleston, but they were relatively speaking for the time and their profession, pretty well behaved.
You can’t miss Bulldog Tours in Charleston, as they are pretty much everywhere downtown. And why not? Their guides are knowledgable, personable and can get you from place to place, so you don’t have to spend all your time staring down at a map or GPS. Bulldog Tours alone offers no less than four ghost related tours, which is only natural when you consider Charleston’s wicked past. It’s easy to get turned around in Charleston, easy to walk right by something amazing, and there is no shame in shuffling along with a group.
The bootsteps of pirates are still heard all throughout Charleston, from the Pink House to the Provost Dungeon beneath the Old Exchange building, where many were held just prior to hanging. It’s hard to miss hearing about the ghost of Lavinia Fischer, the first female mass murder in the United States. She’s been seen in the Unitarian Cemetery, curious as she’s not buried there, as well as Old Jail on Magazine Street, The Old Jail is open for night tours as well, and is damned creepy I’ll have to admit. Populated by everyone from murderers to slaves, to pirates to Civil War prisoners, the yard also saw a slew of hangings. The place is stained. The night I went we were also treated to a thunderstorm which lit up the dark interior. Arranging a thunderstorm requires however, advanced planning or in my case, dumb luck.
Charleston is a living city. Turn a busy city block and you’re in a residential neighborhood. So you get all of Charleston architecture in a single walk – the civic buildings, the market, the shopping districts and the neighborhoods. Rainbow Row is an archetypal photographic image waiting to happen. Churches pierce the skyline, punctuating Charleston’s reputation as the holy city. Colonial era architecture lives comfortably with antebellum and other 19th century styles in the same block. And don’t miss the great knockers of Charleston – particularly on the doors in the South of Battery neighborhood.
Edgar Allan Poe walked these streets, first as a child while his mother played the Dock Street Theatre, and later as a young man stationed at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island nearby. There you can walk the same beaches Edgar collected sea shells on, an obsession of his at the time, and eat and drink at Poe’s Tavern. Poe never visited Poe’s Tavern, but never let historical accuracy get in between you and a beer, especially with a cheeseburger on the side. In Charleston itself you can not only water yourself at Poe’s favorite drinking hole, the King Charles Inn, but you can spend the night as well.
If it’s a haunted hotel in Charleston you’re looking for, try the Battery Carriage House Inn, a bed and breakfast situated in the garden of one of the Battery’s grandest homes. Rooms 8 and 10 have both reported apparitions. One behaved quite gentlemanly, the other it’s hard to say has the ghost was missing his head and legs.
If you’d like your dinner with an upscale pirate setting, try Queen Anne’s Revenge on nearby Daniel Island. Chocked full of artifacts and replicas, as well as great steaks and seafood. And if piracy is really your thing, then check out The Brass Pirate, conveniently located downtown across from the office for Bulldog Tours. From trash to treasures, it’s one of the best pirate shops I’ve come across.
Speaking of shopping, try the Old Charleston Ghost Shop, which stocks everything from books to canes to clocks, all relating to the supernatural. It’s an old fashioned curiosity shop, in a city renowned for its ghosts.
Let’s not forget that Charleston gave us the Charleston, the dance craze of the mid 1920’s. Any city that deserved its own dance in the roaring twenties likely got hit hard by prohibition. Charleston stayed “open for business” as some are want to say, and for a flavor of those times have lunch and a drink at the Blind Tiger, which used to be a noted speakeasy.
In the end, perhaps a better motto for Charleston is “where its people live in history.” History is all around you here, and you can’t help but feel haunted in a way, whether the source is supernatural, or just one of the most scenic cities in North America.Articles on Charleston and environs from History and HauntsPoe in Charleston and the Legend of Annabel LeePiracy in Charleston S.C, The Pirate HouseThe ghosts of St. Helena’s chapel of ease and Land’s End light – true hauntings from South Carolina’s sea islandsToo good to be true, mayhem on the highway turns into a ghost story from Old Charleston and the legend of Lavina FisherA Southern Gothic Ghost Story from Edisto Island, South Carolina’s Low CountryOld Sheldon Church ruins: A quiet retreat in the South Carolina lowcountrySouth Carolina’s Low Country: A Jimmy Buffet lifestyle meets the old South Things to see:Fort Sumter National Monument Charleston Powder Magazine The Pink House Gallery The Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon Dock Street Theatre