Haunted Aiken

Originally published in Easy Street Magazine.

The Spanish moss draped among the trees creates a kaleidoscope of gray and yellow light as the sun slowly wanes at dusk. Streams of light shine onto the dulling, tin roof and sneak downwards across the weathered, wood finish of the once bright-red farmhouse.

A single ray of light pierces the lone window on the north side of the house, as if a spotlight were picked for that one room.

And if it were destined for that room, it may shine on Annie Mae, who last walked the earth more than a half-century ago.

The house was built in 1785 and is the oldest residence in Aiken County. It shares the sprawling, 20-acre grounds of New Bridge Farm with centuries-old oaks that insulate it from the world nearby. A journey there is timeless, both in look and in spirit. Generations have walked the uneven wooden floors and climbed the creaking wooden stairs. And one, it is rumored, has yet to move on.

Annie Mae Richardson Newman was one of many Richardsons who lived at New Bridge Farm from the time the family purchased it in 1901. Nancy Wilds bought the Aiken estate from the Richardsons in 1976 and lived in the main house up until a few years ago, when she built a smaller, more efficient home only a few dozen yards away. Annie Mae first made her presence known when Ms. Wilds had a guest staying in the main house. After a few nights in the room, her guest informed Ms. Wilds that she would like to change rooms. “She was convinced there was a presence,” said Ms. Wilds. “She just knew there was somebody in the room.” But no one else was in the room.

At least, no one of this earth.

A short while later, Ms. Wilds had the opportunity to speak with Annie Mae’s surviving brother, John Richardson. The presence was not an imagined one, he told her, for it was Annie Mae. Ms. Wilds was told that all of the Richardsons knew Annie Mae was still there. Annie Mae’s son had passed away when he was just 12, and Annie Mae had grown attached to the house where her son had lived his brief time on earth.

Her boy had died there. And she wanted to stay.

Mr. Richardson believed his sister’s spirit stayed only for the love of her boy, and her gentle disposition during her life was evidence that her motives for staying were pure. “She was very sweet and wouldn’t dream of hurting anybody,” he assured Ms. Wilds.

Annie Mae lives in only one room, which bears the unmistakable likeness of a bygone era. During the day, sunlight is the only illuminant. By night, it’s easy to imagine mounted oil lamps casting flickering glows on the large mosquito net that canopies the bed, or the spinning wheel that sits slightly off the room’s center. Without effort, the mind conjures Annie Mae standing at the wood stove that feels such a natural part of the room.

Her presence, however, is not one of otherworldly terror, but rather a serene calmness. Over the years, the Richardson family not only accepted but welcomed Annie Mae’s ethereal residence, maintaining that her spirit watched over babies who stayed in the house. And, like the Richardsons before her, Ms. Wilds feels no fear towards her uninvited guest. “I like it, since she’s a very nice ghost, and everybody who knew her said she was a nice person,” she said.

Clear across the county, a little girl is playing. She is a small child of about 5, her dark bangs framing a pretty white face. She giggles as she tugs on the sheets, waking the weary traveler, who is staying her first night at a rustic country inn.

The traveler looks down to see a playful child, tugging naughtily at the bed sheets. “Now you stop that!” she says to the child. And stop the child does, as she disappears.

A day later, the traveler related the story to the innkeeper, wondering if perhaps there were children staying at the inn, and the girl had not disappeared, but rather eased out of the room as the shadows and jetlag played tricks on the traveler’s eyes.

The innkeeper, Scottie Ruark, knew no children had been in the inn. Annie had been there. Annie not only shares a name with Annie Mae, but also a restlessness in the afterlife.

Annie’s Inn sits quietly in Montmorenci on a straight stretch of Highway 278, a restored vision of a century ago, of Southern hospitality and veranda sittings. Trucks barrel down the road, screaming the reality of modern-day hustle. Yet time moves a little slower when you step into the timeless comforts of the bed and breakfast. For one little girl, time has stood still.

Mrs. Ruark bought the house in 1984. Shortly thereafter, she first heard Annie.

“When we first started renovating, I heard a little girl saying, ‘Mama-Mama,’” she said.   Her initial thought was of her two daughters, both of whom were away at college. Was this a paranormal attempt to communicate, a direct pipeline of kinship that exists between a mother and daughter? She called her daughters, but no such signal had been sent.

She made frequent searches for the source of the voice, but the voice always eluded her. “If you’re downstairs it sounds like it’s upstairs,” she said.  “If you’re upstairs, it sounds like it’s downstairs.”

Annie’s origins are as mysterious as her echoing cries for her mother. Like many sprawling manors of the era, the house is steeped in Southern history. It was a Union stronghold during the Civil War, when it had its third story removed, courtesy of a Confederate cannonball. Near the turn of the 20th century, the house was a hospital, something Mrs. Ruark sees as the possible start – and likely end – of this world’s Annie. “You know these old houses had a lot of births and deaths in them,” she said.

Mrs. Ruark has found one trait of Annie’s that perhaps foretells her arrival: Annie does not like disruptions. Each time Annie has made herself known, it has been during periods of major renovations at the inn. After a discussion with paranormal experts, Mrs. Ruark found that ghostly visions are common during renovations. Ghosts, it seems, do not like change.

“I guess it disturbs them,” she said. “And they don’t want to be disturbed.”

Stories of paranormal presences are as old as story-telling, with roots firmly planted in South Carolina’s history. The Lowcountry, in particular, abounds with disturbed spirits, many of whom are young women waiting for sailors whose ships will never return. Ghosts are popular nemeses in books and movies, an easy hero’s foe in the simplest of tales. Many dismiss ghosts as just that – fictional inventions of imaginative storytellers – and are doubtful of otherworldly presences. Others, however, have no doubts that those from beyond are sometimes still here.

Roy Andrews, for one, is quite certain that Annie, Annie Mae, and their spiritual counterparts are much more than the result of overactive imaginations. The North Augusta resident is a paranormal adventurer and occasional ghost hunter. The ghosts, he said, are as real as the previous bodies they inhabited.

“These are energies that have not made the transition to the other side,” he explained. “They’re not necessarily spirits, they’re just energies that choose not to go with the spirit.”

And, despite the tendency for popular culture to fashion ghosts into dangerous enemies of the living, Mr. Andrews insists the only danger a ghost poses comes from reactions by their earth-bound roommates.

“They can make you hurt yourself,” he said. “But they’re not harmful. They’re not into chasing humans. As a general rule they pass through. They don’t sit down and carry on conversations.”

Despite the benign nature of ghosts, Mr. Andrews concedes that some people may not want them in their houses, and he proposes a simple solution: “If it gets to be a problem, you can ask the spirit to disengage itself and go to the other side.”

Mr. Andrews is not bothered by the scorn of skeptics who either rationalize or completely dismiss haunted houses.

“They have never experienced it,” he said. “There are things on this earth that none of us know about. There are so many things there are no answers for.”

James H. Goodman is the president of the Beech Island Historical Society and has written four books on local history. He said ghost stories are tightly woven into history, and not merely for the sake of a thrilling tale. For him, such tales can provide affirmation for the living. “It’s hard to believe in a spiritual world all around us, but then not believe in seeing a ghost,” he said.

Mr. Goodman said he has even hoped for a chance encounter with a spirit, as a means to spiritual solidification.

“I’ve got a cemetery out at my house, but I’ve never seen anything,” he said. “I’ve walked around at night hoping I would see something because I wouldn’t be afraid of them, and I think that would increase my faith in the spiritual world.”

Despite his frequent sojourns for spiritual verification, Mr. Goodman has yet to see the likes of an Annie Mae or an Annie. Of course, by his own admission, he, like many of us, may simply not know what to look for. “I do believe there is a spiritual world all around us, things that we cannot see,” he said. “But I’ve never seen one … that I know of.”

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