A Chill in the Basement… and a history lesson.


“SONG FOR LAZARETTO” (copyright 2001)

Tybee Island Ghosts…

After researching the history of Tybee’s Lazaretto Creek some years ago, I wrote an article called,  “A Lazaretto Primer,”  … also wrote a song that incorporates an interpretation of that history. 

I don’t presume to know any particulars besides what’s written here, and of course there may be others on Tybee and elsewhere who can add more accurate details.

Some have labeled the following tale a “ghost story.” I agree, for as the bitter cold of Ohio’s winter in 2001 piled snow high outside our basement windows I had what some might describe as a ‘visitation.’ The encounter caught me off guard, and whatever happened, it cured my writer’s block once and for all. Never again will I put off writing when such inspiration calls.

This story has been revised twice and appears on other sites with updates.  The events are true, but since feelings are subjective, I’ll let the reader decide between fact and fiction.

It was January 2001, on the eve of the death of my family friend and mentor, Emma Kelly, Johnny Mercer’s “Lady of 6000 Songs.” John Berendt’s novel, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil devotes an entire chapter to this beloved local character.

I was in the basement of our Silver Lake home, carrying out a New Year’s resolution to clean out my desk. While sorting through stacks of papers and junk mail that had accumulated in the middle drawer, I noticed a small blue pamphlet brought back from Tybee Island the summer before.

We’d visited the lighthouse while vacationing there, and the folksy promotional piece provided a pleasant diversion from the howling blizzard outside. To my surprise, it mentioned a ‘quarantine’ that had once operated on the far west side of the island. Though I’d grown up in the area and paid many visits to Tybee, I’d never heard of this. Information about Lazaretto Creek and the quarantine itself was sparse, as it obviously wasn’t the most documented of local attractions.

For sure, I’d choose research over cleaning, any snowy day, so I got out my southern history books, and went online. I spent the rest of that afternoon and a portion of the next discovering what I could about the history and founding of Georgia, Savannah, Tybee Island, the Spaniards, the pirates, and the Civil War.

The pamphlet also mentioned Indians, and more specifically, Euchee Indians. I’ve since learned that while it is true that the word “Tybee” is derived from the word Taube, which means ‘salt,’ the word is Itza Maya, Apalache Creek/Itzate (Hitchiti), which might mean that the native Americans who initially lived and hunted at the mouth of the Savannah River were in fact “Chicora,” and that the Uchee, who lived along the banks of the Oconee, and at the headwaters of the Ogeechee, Chatanooga, and Savannah Rivers, while also associated with the islands of Wahale or Guale, including Tybee, may have merely adopted the word as their own, … but that’s another story all together.

Tybee Island is the most northerly of Georgia’s “Golden Isles.” Twenty miles east of Savannah, it has a small strip of land that extends westward, out into a vast area of coastal marshlands. This strip, with immediate access to the shipping channel, became the location for two consecutive quarantines that operated in the late 1700s, into the early 1800′s. The first, located on the island’s western side on the tidal creek that now bears its name, was simply called a ‘lazaretto.’

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, it housed unfortunate European immigrants who contracted contagious diseases such as yellow fever or worse on board ship during the transatlantic voyage to America. It was also the ‘welcoming station’ for a host of infected African slaves who emerged from the cargo holds of the treacherous middle passage.

Like all seaports, Savannah could ill afford contamination of the mainland, so incoming vessels experiencing outbreaks had to unload the sick and cleanse the decks before continuing up river to port. Sometimes they were forced to remain at the mouth of the Savannah River for months before given clearance to proceed.

The present-day Italian term lazaretto, or lazaret simply translated means hospital, but in the Middle Ages it literally meant ‘pest house’ – a place for those dying from the plague or leprosy. Derived from the Hebrew word lazar, or leper, it also refers to the biblical figure, Lazarus, the one that Christ raised from the dead. Research also indicates that remote portions of the first quarantine, a 104-acre tract purchased in 1767 from patriot, Josiah Tattnall probably served as a leper’s colony.

After continuous use throughout the Revolution, the Savannah Grand Jury reported it in ‘ruinous condition’ in 1785. It was abandoned, and a new site opened across the way on nearby Cockspur Island. I also discovered that in 1954 the Georgia Historical Society had placed the small historic marker (pictured below), at the original site’s general vicinity along Highway 80 East.

That second evening around 9:30 p.m. after everyone else went to bed, I went to the basement to finish putting my desk in order. Then I sat down to write. I’d organized my thoughts into what I decided would be a poem about what I’d read of the history of Savannah, the quarantines and the surrounding marshes. However, in all the years I’d visited though I’d sailed in a hobie cat off north end, I’d never done any boating around the island, much less in the marshes, and didn’t really know where to start.

I set out to describe the place as best I could imagine knowing that sometimes, if you just begin writing real substance eventually kicks in. But I’d barely gotten the words of the first two lines down, when a strange thing happened. It began as a slight tingle – then, almost as if someone had slipped up beside me, and touched me on the shoulder, there was whispering in my ear.

The words were not clear, but next moment I could feel myself standing shoulder-deep, in cold, rushing water, with tall green grass and the smell of salt all around. It suddenly dawned on me – I was in the marsh, and quickly, being sucked down by the undertow. I felt I was drowning. For several anxious seconds, I was even sick to my stomach.

Then as quickly as the sensation came, it was gone. I sat there wondering if maybe I was coming down with something, or having a slight stroke – whatever it was, it was very real. I got up to pour a drink of water, and resumed my seat at the computer to read over the words I’d typed:

“It runs from the mouth of South Channel, with the tide it meanders round…”

It wasn’t late, and I was anything but sleepy, so I decided to keep writing and see what else might happen. Except for the fact that I couldn’t stop and a ten-versed poem emerged, the rest of the evening was uneventful. But the following afternoon my mom called from Georgia to tell me that Emma Kelly had died. Now, I don’t believe for a minute the experience had anything to do with Emma other than the fact that the incident occurred and it served to mark her passing for me.

Emma Thompson Kelly (Dec. 17th, 1918 – Jan. 17th, 2001)

The strange thing was that exactly one year later to that very day, January 17th, I found myself crossing the Lazaretto, coming to live on Tybee Island, and in the months that followed, I thought about “Miss Emma” every time I passed the Pirate’s House where she’d played at Hannah’s East in downtown Savannah. It felt a little strange crossing the bridge onto the island many times that first year, too. I still think about it sometimes.

It wasn’t until 2005 however while I was working on an article for a local publication that I learned the spot on the western side of the island where the fishing fleet now docks was actually considered to be haunted by some of the locals. I’d hoped to start off with a house on Officer’s Row and do a series on Tybee ghosts, but it was the holidays and the owners weren’t in town, so I ended up over at Lazaretto Creek.

When folks at the marina claimed to have seen dark figures with tattered clothes walking out on the docks in the darkness, I wasn’t surprised. I was told that on two occasions, such a figure walked right into a room, stood and stared in silence, then disappeared. Considered a mystery to this day, I’d wager one of “Lazaretto’s Lost Souls” was out and about.

If ever a place had reason to be haunted, this might be one. Granted, it isn’t Gettysburg, Hiroshima or Dauchau, or a place where millions have suffered, and I don’t wish to labor the point, but eighteenth century necessity paid a brief, but costly visit to Lazaretto Creek, another lonely little corner of the world, where outcasts perished. For those dying in quarantine on the outskirts of the New World after traveling across the vast ocean in hopes of finding a better life, it was a terrible fate.

Even worse, imagine being torn away from loved ones and homeland, and thrown into the pain and horror of slavery. After languishing in chains in the stench and filth below deck with the rest of your unfortunate comrades, you’d probably have welcomed death rather than recovery, especially if there was no hope of freedom.

The song I wrote that snowy night in Ohio is a tale of history influenced by what I “felt and saw,” and what I believe. You’ll find it linked to the photo of the sunset above. Try reading it on the dock at the marina at dusk, and let me know what you think.

* * * * * *

Copyright 2011, The Tybee Times; 2012, Real Spooks – Cynthia Farr Kinkel

5 thoughts on “A Chill in the Basement… and a history lesson.

  1. Thank you for sharing your hard work. I understand that sometimes I ask for too much. These are great. I will read and try to add info from American Genesis to try to get the earliest possible date for the arrival of these people in the New World. The article on language may be very helpful in establishing dates.


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