Lazaretto’s Lost Souls…

Tybee Island Ghosts…

* * * * * *

First, it’s important to understand that originally, the Charter of the State of Georgia contained a provision that prohibited the importation of slaves into the new colony. Georgia was to be home to a free (and sober!) working class, much like the old Yeomen’s class in England, where merchants and craftsmen, combined with small farmers to make up the economies of small communities.

Real Spooks © 2012 cynthiakinkel

The founding philosophy was that slave ownership promoted laziness, and a privileged landed gentry. Many of the new Georgia transplants were indentured servants, whose debts had been forgiven back in England. These ‘reformed’ individuals were being given a second chance on the frontier of the youngest colony. They were encouraged to value ‘thriftiness and hard work,’ instead of excesses and indulgences.  So the Crown did not issue large land grants, as they had years before to the plantation owners of South Carolina. Instead, they appointed Trustees in Savannah as overseers of the common good.

Georgia’s first colonial settlers got ‘forty acres to farm,’ and the merchants and the craftsmen were to set up shops in which to trade their goods and services, and a portion of the proceeds and profits would go back to England through the Trustees. It sounded like a good plan, at first.

But the low country with its coastal marshes and subtropical climate was difficult to farm, not to mention the fact that it was infested with fever-bearing mosquitoes, native Americans, and other hazards. (South Carolina had already discovered these obstacles and opted to employ slave labor.)

Eventually neither the small farmers nor the merchants could make ends meet. Settlers began leaving the new ‘buffer colony’ in droves. The noble experiment envisioned by Oglethorpe and the Trustees was fast becoming a miserable failure.  In order to save the colony, the Crown began issuing large land grants to those who could farm them, but these larger farms could not operate without a substantial, affordable labor force.

In 1749, increasing social, economic and political pressure forced the founding fathers to repeal the anti-slavery provisions in their Colonial Charter. When the act that permitted the importation of slaves was issued, it also contained a provision to establish quarantines to combat the risks associated with the influx of imported slaves, as well as the usual threats caused by illnesses from incoming merchant ships.

This reversal of social and commercial policy saved the colony’s economy, but eventually it opened up a world of woe. The quarantine at Lazaretto Creek, however, wasn’t built until 1768, almost twenty years later, on a hundred and four acres of land that had been purchased from Josiah Tattnall the year before. The buildings that housed the sick were constructed on the western tip of the island, at the mouth of South Channel Sound.

Although it served as a ‘hospital’ for less than two decades, it saw scores of unfortunate ‘detainees’ each year due to the span of time in which it operated. Throughout the years of the expanding slave trade, and during the days of the American Revolution, Tybee’s ‘lazaretto’ operated continuously as a holding station for the sick and the dying, until it was found to be completely uninhabitable in 1785. A new quarantine was then built on nearby Cockspur Island to replace it.

In the days before public sanitation, immunizations and antibiotics, it was necessary to employ such drastic means of control to keep imported infections from spreading to the mainland.  Anyone who became ill during the voyage to Georgia was subject to quarantine. Whether they traveled of their own accord, seeking freedom or fortune in the new world, or had been transported in chains, lying side by side with hundreds of captive slaves bound for market in Savannah, any individuals infected with a contagious disease like cholera, yellow fever or smallpox were either sent to the quarantine, or the ship on which they sailed would itself be detained in the channel. Sometimes the sick were put in small boats and rowed to the hammocks on Tybee. Sometimes they were tossed overboard to swim.

Once quarantined, these individuals stayed for a certain duration of time, where they either recovered, or died.  Accounts vary as to whether it was for a month or four months. A worst-case scenario might be that they didn’t die immediately, or didn’t recover before the ship’s quarantine was lifted, and had to be transported to shore, where they might become infected with something worse, and end up staying, indefinitely.

The present-day Italian term ‘lazaretto, or lazaret’ simply translated means hospital, but in the Middle Ages it literally meant ‘pest house,’ and could actually describe any structure or vessel used as a holding station for people with contagious diseases, or a place for those dying from the plague or from leprosy. Derived from the Hebrew word ‘lazar or leper,’ it also refers to the biblical figure, “Lazarus,” the one whom Christ raised from the dead.

It was not uncommon for creeping ‘killer’ diseases to lurk in such places, and research indicates that remote portions of Tybee’s first quarantine also served as a leper’s colony. No doubt, Lazaretto was, overall, a pretty desolate place. 

Today, the western hammocks of Tybee Island are the picture of tranquility at the edge of the largest expanse of salt marsh on the entire southeastern coast.  Whatever past scourges or secrets they possess, they bear them in total serenity, and the sunsets are magnificent.

Do such places hold memories that can ‘speak’ to us beyond the obvious, who knows? However, some believe the earth itself has a conscious collective memory, filled with everything that’s ever happened here.  Perhaps it’s also a storyteller.

Captain Mike Scarbrough and his wife, Iris first moved to Tybee in 1992. They bought a property out at the Lazaretto Creek Marina from W.G. Smith, a local resident and fisherman who owns and operates the vessel known as the Agnes Marie, with his partner J. B. Griffle. The premises needed so much work that Iris says her initial response was just to jump in the car and head back to Atlanta. She recalls turning to Mike, and cringing as she asked, “Are you sure we really want to do this?”  But the couple bought the property, and began to build a future on Tybee with their young daughter, Lisa.

They worked a year or so restoring the docks and the old buildings at the marina while living on their boat, and soon had converted the small house near the water into a bar with an office.  According to Iris it wasn’t much to look at, in fact she says it was ‘a dump,’ and if they had five customers drop in on the weekends, they thought they’d really been ‘discovered.’ They just called it ‘Mike’s Place.’ All they served was sandwiches, snacks and beer, but the fishing crowd out at the docks always appreciated the little bar, and the regulars were friendly. The Scarbroughs continued to reclaim the remaining areas of the grounds and started a dolphin tour business, and over the course of the next decade, things began to shape up.  A seafood market also eventually opened in another one of the buildings.

The fact that Lazaretto Creek had ‘a few skeletons in its closet’ was never an issue. However, both Mike and Iris are quick to mention the fact that several strange things happened during the first years that they lived on the property.

Photo from Captain Mike & Iris Scarbrough - old Lazaretto Marina docks,1992

There are two incidences in particular. The first took place one night around three in the morning, when Mike happened to get up and look out the back window of the house, toward the creek. He noticed someone walking around out on the dock – maybe a couple of people. No one was supposed to be out there that time of night, so Mike went over to investigate.

He headed down the plank walkway, ready for a confrontation, only to discover no one was there. In fact, no one was anywhere around at all. Mike said that he stood listening for a few moments to see if he could hear anything. Everything was quiet, and there was no sign that any boat had left the dock. “For the life of me,” he smiled. “I couldn’t figure out where whoever it was, could have gone.”

The second incident happened some time later, when the Scarbrough’s daughter Lisa was in high school, and had a friend over from Savannah. They were sleeping in Lisa’s bedroom about three o’clock in the morning, when the friend was awakened by a sound.

She looked over to see a tall, wide-eyed black man in a very tattered shirt, standing in the doorway of the room. She woke Lisa, and the two of them saw him for an instant looking in at them before he turned and left the doorway. The girls woke Mike and Iris with their screams. The lights came on and everyone searched the house, but they found nothing.

Perhaps the girls had just dreamed the incident, and the stranger was never again seen in the house, but Mike had to stand vigil for a while so his daughter could get to sleep at night, and the Savannah friend never slept over again.

In 1995, the marina hosted the US and international team trials, and also the yachting events of the 1996 Summer Olympics, but when Mike took a crew from Good Morning America out on the S.S. Dolphin for a tour, his Dolphin Adventure Tours really took off. Captain Mike and First Mate Iris decided it was time to let someone else set up business at the marina.

When Joel Solomon moved in at Mike’s Place, he renamed it Cafe Loco and added live music on the weekends.  Often there, long after the musicians packed up and the help left, Joel would soon have his own encounter with the Scarbrough’s late night visitor.

Alone in the bar one night, Joel was cleaning up after closing, when he heard a noise and looked up to see a man standing just inside the doorway. He was a black man in very tattered clothes that Joel did not recognize.

The man didn’t come into the bar. He stood in the front dining area for a moment looking like he was lost. Joel told him he was closed, and was about to ask him if he needed some other kind of help, when the man turned as if he were walking over to take a seat in one of the booths. Joel left the counter and walked out to talk to him, but when he got into the front room, no one was there. Joel said that he looked inside and out but couldn’t find the man.

According to Captain Mike, the incident was pretty unnerving to Joel, enough to make him extra careful to search the premises before locking the front door, and leaving for the night.

There has been some speculation throughout the years about where the mass gravesites might have been. The old quarantine buildings probably stood in a fairly protected area, near the river channel. If there were unmarked graves farther back towards the marsh itself, most likely they have been washed away by the tides throughout the years.

It’s also very possible that if the graves were located where the new bridge now stands, they were unearthed when it was built. Seems like I read a newspaper account about bones being discovered in that location at the time that came bobbing up from the ooze, but I don’t remember the details.

The Scarbroughs told me that a group from England showed up a few years back, looking for the unmarked grave of a British soldier whom they believed died and was buried somewhere on the grounds.  Members of the group searched and searched, but never found a single grave. In fact, no remains have ever been found in or around the present-day grounds of Lazaretto Marina or the adjacent hammock.

When you think that there was over a hundred acres in the original tract bought from Josiah Tattnall in 1767, that’s a lot of ground to cover. Most of the locals are doubtful that future searches will ever turn up anything, other than more speculation.

The ‘ghost’ who paid the 3 A.M. visits to the Scarbroughs and Joel Solomon hasn’t come around lately.   Iris says that it’s possibly because of all of the activity on the premises at night.  Captain Mike’s Dolphin Adventure Tours just celebrated 20 years on Tybee in 2012, and these days the little village on Lazaretto Creek near the Tybee Island Marina is often flooded with fishing and water sports enthusiasts, tourists and sight seers.  Solomon sold Cafe Loco several years ago, and I haven’t checked with the new owners of the place, now called Coco’s Sunset Grille to find out what they’ve encountered.  Maybe there are just too many people around these days for a ‘lost soul’ to feel comfortable.


* * * * * *

*Copyright 2012, Real Spooks – Cynthia Farr Kinkel

(*Portions of the above story appeared in the 12/2005 and 01/2006 issues of The Tybee Breeze, published in 2 parts as “Ghosts on Tybee – Song for Lazaretto.”)


3 thoughts on “Lazaretto’s Lost Souls…

  1. Pingback: A Chill in the Basement… and a song. | Real Spooks

  2. It’s also very possible that if the graves were located where the new bridge now stands, they were unearthed when it was built. Seems like I read a newspaper account about some bones being discovered in that location at the time that came bobbing up from the ooze, but I don’t remember the details………….Love this paragraph!…………….

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s