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Weird Georgia Muscogee County Ghosts - St. Elmo’s Spirits
Generic haunted house. Illustration from Weird Georgia (2006).
Colonel Seaborn Jones was an accomplished man. At the state capital in Milledgeville he had been on Governor George Troup's staff, served as a legislator and solicitor general, and been a successful lawyer and planter. In Columbus he purchased 350 acres and vowed to build what one architect called a "bona fide Greek temple for a home," which he designed himself.
The mansion, started in 1828 and completed five years later, was surrounded on three sides by 12 Doric columns, each measuring three feet in diameter and 40 feet in height. The bricks of the 18 inch thick walls, covered with white stucco, were manufactured on the property. Seaborn Jones named his majestic home El Dorado.
The doors and stairways are mahogany, the floors wide pine boards, and the other interior woods are oak and cedar from the estate. The great house has three floors. The ground level contained storerooms, kitchen and dining room, and quarters for slaves. The top floors each have four rooms, separated by hallways that extend the length of the building. Rooms on the second floor are 20 by 20 feet, with 14 foot ceilings; the third floor rooms only slightly smaller. A beautiful winding staircase leads to the top floor. Wooden pipes carried water to the house.Each side of the house had formal gardens filled with expensive statuary. In the yard was a conservatory measuring 50 by 25 feet and filled with rare and tropical plants, including banana, orange, and lemon tress. A 300 foot long scuppernong arbor led to a lake.
Visitors included Presidents James K. Polk and Millard Fillmore, Henry Clay, Winfield Scott, actor Edwin Booth, and English author William Makepeace Thackeray. In 1839 future Confederate general Henry L. Benning married Seaborn's only daughter, Mary, and lived there.
The mansion achieved a worldwide reputation by the publication of the novel St. Elmo, written by Augusta Jane Evans Wilson, a niece of the builder's wife. El Dorado was a model for the house in the book, which was completed there.
In 1875 the house was purchased by Colonel James J. Slade, mayor of Columbus 1891-1895, who changed its name to St. Elmo. The house, which hosted a school for girls, was opened to the public in 1933 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.
According to a Columbus Enquirer article written by Doug Wallace in 1947, a man who grew up in St. Elmo, Valter Wall, was firmly convinced that the mansion was haunted. The house was beset by mysterious sounds that were relentlessly pursued by his father, Papa Robert Wall. The sounds took the form of the traditional dragging chains, knocks from the walls, scratching, and other strange noises.
One night, Wall said, "we all heard a noise that sounded like somebody had dumped a bucket of dried peas on the back porch." A search found not one pea.
But that was "only one of the noises we heard at night," Wall continued. "You know, everybody would hear the same noise...But we never could find where it came from." Papa Wall would light a lantern and tour the vast structure, family members in tow.
"One night Papa went clear up through the top floor where furniture and things were stored and climbed out on the roof trying to trace a noise. That was the night we thought we heard the plaster fall in one of the rooms. We never did find whatever it was."
However, Wall said, "The worst sound of all at night was the knocking. It would start sort of like this-knock, knock, knock-like you were knocking on a door not aiming to make much noise. Then it would get louder and louder until we all got up to see what it was. Then it would quit. We never did find out what caused that knock."It would start up just after we went to bed. Sometimes it would let up a spell and then, directly, start all over again."
Also living at St. Elmo at that time was 12-year old Essie, who thought the sounds were explained by their stable of cats, numbering eight.
"One night most of the cats suddenly went mad for some reason," Essie said, "and Uncle Rob got all of us children into one room and herded the cats into another and got rid of them. Some of those cats were so crazy they jumped off the high railing...and landed two stories below."
One wonders what phenomenon drove the cats into such a frenzy of activity and caused their suicidal behavior.
Philip and Margot Schley purchased St. Elmo's in 1964. Mrs. Schley said their quiet ghost was fond of taking books, vases, and other items and keeping them hidden for months. All of the objects eventually returned-to obvious places-where their presence could not have been missed before, she told Richard Hyatt of The Columbus Enquirer in 1982.
The ghost made itself known to Mrs. Schley before she had heard the stories, in 1965, "right after we moved here. I heard footsteps, a woman's footsteps, upstairs. It wasn't scary, not plodding, just someone going down the hall in high heels. I went upstairs, but no one was there."
The ghost of St Elmo is friendly and mischievous but has never been seen. "She's a quiet ghost...not something to be scared of... strange things are always happening in this house. Things will disappear completely. You can go through drawers and chests and not find them, then they will reappear overnight. We joke about it; the ghost did this; the ghost did that."
The current tale-which apparently has no basis in fact (but hey, it is a ghost story)-states that in 1847 John Abraham Jones, a son of Seaborn Jones, was to marry at El Dorado. A female relation, who had long loved her cousin, decided to disrupt the festivities by ingesting rat poison. When her act was discovered, the wedding was indeed postponed. The woman lingered for three days before dying and the couple was then married.
Copies of St. Elmo are readily available online.
From The Georgia Ghost Book, which is still under construction.J
im Miles is the author of two Weird Georgia books and nine books about the Civil War. See Jim's books.