St. Helena Island, a sea island located in the Port Royal Sound of South Carolina has a long history. Some say it’s the oldest settlement in the United States, founded shortly after its discovery by Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón, a Spaniard looking to colonize the sea islands, some time around 1520. Port Royal, located on the adjacent island of the same name, was once the capital of the Spanish colony of Florida, and today is best known as the bucolic and utterly charming city of Beaufort. Think Forrest Gump, as a fair amount of the movie was filmed there. Since its discovery, it’s been ruled at various times by the Spanish, French, English, Scots, United States and of course the Confederate States of America.
Noticing a resemblance to the portions of West Africa known for ideal rice-growing conditions, slavery became a hot commodity from an early time. In addition to rice – spices, cotton and indigo became valuable cash crops, made profitable on the backs of not only slave labour from Sierre Leone, but native Americans, as well as indentured servants from across Europe. At the time of the American revolution, St. Helena Island, see-sawing between French and Spanish rule became English.
All these influences formed a gumbo of culture, cooked in the sweltering South Carolina summers, somewhat isolated from the mainland. Today, most of the island’s 8,000 plus residents live in rural areas, and you find a very strong Gullah element as well.
Heading out towards Fort Fremont on the southwestern tip of the island known as Land’s End, you pass beneath the overhanging branches of what has come to be known as the hanging tree, from a legend that runaway slaves were once hung there as a warning to others who contemplated escaping their shackles and chains. If you find yourself here after dark, park beneath its branches, turn off you headlamps and wait for the Land’s End light. It begins in the distance like a single headlight coming down the road towards you, but as it grows closer you realize it’s much larger and not nearly as bright. Some say as it speeds by it leaves you charged with static electricity. Others have reported being overtaken by the light as they drove back towards Port Royal Island. No one agrees on what the cause for the light might be, though it’s pretty much agreed upon that the light is real, and even somewhat reliable. Some even claim the light appears every night, if you’re patient enough.
Sheriff’s patrols in the seventies reported that there might be a hundred or more cars lining this stretch of the road some nights. At least two people have died in auto accidents chasing down the light. Some say it’s nothing more than swamp gas. Others say it’s not bright enough to be swamp gas and it moves too quickly and with a purpose. Scientific studies were made on it in the seventies with no definitive conclusion, though one idea which seems to pull more weight than others is that it’s an optical illusion created by the distant lights of headlamps further down the road. Which perhaps is what led to the story that it’s the ghost of several children who were killed when the bus they were riding in slammed into the hanging tree.
Proponents of the supernatural claim it is the ghost of the unfortunate slaves hung from the tree, as it’s been said to hover among its branches. Some say it’s the ghost of a union officer who lost his head in the war. Another story is that it’s the soul of a departed confederate soldier. The unfortunate fellow was on patrol one evening, when surprised by union soliders, one of whom sliced his head off and tossed it in the bay, and that now he roams the countryside, looking for his lost head. Though let’s be realistic here … one doesn’t simply slice the head off another person, without expending a lot of force, and having exceptionally good aim. There’s an awful lot of bone to get through. And it’s unlikely that two soldiers trying to infiltrate behind enemy lines would take the time to saw, hack or otherwise pry the skull off a body. It’s not only time consuming, but from what I hear, incredibly messy.
Though it brings to mind the story of the another famous, headless soldier, up north in Sleepy Hollow, New York. Sleepy Hollow is of course known for more ghostly encounters than the headless Hessian. And so is St. Helena Island.
Just a bit before you reach the hanging tree, off to the left you find the ruins of an old church, what is known in the area as a chapel of ease. A chapel of ease was built to serve the plantation population of an area, too far away from a parish church to attend Sunday services. In the case of this particular chapel of ease on St. Helena Island, building was commenced about 1740, using tabby construction methods.
Tabby, for those of you unfamiliar with the method, refers not to a cat, but the building material. Tabby is a form of concrete made from lime, sand and oyster shells. The area was once heavily populated by native Americans, who ate oysters by the boatload it appears, leaving their shells heaped in great piles around the island. Oyster shells don’t decompose very rapidly at all, and it’s not uncommon to find piles thousands of years old throughout the world. It’s believed that this method of constructions dates from the Spanish period, as in Spain you find a very similar building method, which was brought there by the invading Moors from North Africa.
Which is interesting when you think of it. This particular chapel, intended to make life more comfortable for white slaveholders and their workers, was built using a technique from Spain, when it was conquered by the Africans. Ironic, wouldn’t you say. At any rate, it was once known as the White Church, as the combination of oyster shells and lime caused the structure to appear to glow when it was still in its glory. Its glory days are long past, having been heavily damaged from a forest fire late in the 19th century.
Walking around and inside the ruins today, you find the atmosphere heavy with humidity, and hushed with the passing of time. To say the effect is gloomy would be too obvious. Edgar Allan Poe might have said that a stifling air of decay hangs like a decrepit mantle upon the place. Creepy is another word that comes to mind.
The St. Helena Chapel of Ease was ideally situated for the planters of the island, and by 1812, it had been granted the designation of parish church. Then on November 4 of 1861 Sunday services were interrupted by a messenger who brought news of the impending invasion of nearby Beaufort by Union troops to a Captain William Oliver Perry Fripp. Fripp’s ancestors had been instrumented in the building and upkeep of the chapel, as John Fripp III has left 500 pounds for the purpose in 1780. A year earlier, Edgar Fripp and his wife Eliza had taken their place in a mausoleum built for them in the adjacent graveyard back in 1852. Built by Charleston stone-cutter W.T. White, it remains on the property today, and still shows itself to be in quite good condition. According to a diary written by Thomas B. Chaplin on April 13, 1852, “Said vault was a fine affair and did not have to wait very long for it’s occupants, Edgar & wife. The Yankees broke it open during the war hoping for treasure. It is now somewhat out of order.”
To this day, the vault remains out of order. The planters left the island with the arrival of Union forces in 1861, and the church never regained its stature. Stories relate that union soldiers used it for services during the war, as well as northerners who came to the area, i.e. carpetbaggers, after the war to educate and train the former slave population.
The door of Fripp’s vault was ruined by the soldiers, and at some point it was decided to brick up the entrance. According to the story, workmen did a journeyman’s job of sealing the vault, only to return the following day to find the bricks removed and neatly stacked beside the mausoleum. Convinced that the supernatural was afoot, in part aided by police assurances that no one had been in the area the previous night long enough to complete such a task, the job remained unfinished. Today the vault is empty, the door half-sealed by bricks, and one finds the experience of looking into its vacant maw more than a bit unsettling.
Others report hearing whispered prayers and singing emanating from the interior of the chapel. Still other claim to have heard names being shouted in the silent burial ground, or the surrounding forest.
My personal favorite involves a lady shrouded in white, walking amongst the tombstones, a child in her arms, like a southern gothic Lucy Harker from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, carrying the child to her crypt for a midnight snack.
That such stories about on St. Helena’s Island, and around the Chapel of Ease is no surprise. With such a mingled heritage and bloodline, and about five centuries of history to feed it, perhaps it’s surprising that the ghosts don’t outnumber the living in the thick air of the South Carolina sea islands.
Gothic Travel Rating: A bit of traffic on the highway will intrude on the quiet and solitude, but a visit to the Chapel of Ease exudes southern gothic moodiness. The possible presence of alligators and snakes will certainly keep you on your toes as well. Maybe not the most frightening place in the area, but it’s hard to beat it for mood. The police might frown on you parking there at night, but have a friend drop you off and come back later. I dare you.
If you go: S.C. Sec. Rd. 45, St. Helena Island