A Chill in the Basement… and a history lesson.

Palm-sunset

“SONG FOR LAZARETTO” (copyright 2001)

Tybee Island Ghosts…

After researching the history of Tybee’s Lazaretto Creek some years ago, I wrote an article for The Tybee Times called,  “A Lazaretto Primer,”  … also wrote a poem that later became a song which 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.

I’d picked it up at the Tybee Lighthouse gift shop while on vacation, 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 region, and paid many visits to Tybee, I’d never heard of it. Information about the legacy of Lazaretto Creek and the quarantine itself was sparse. Obviously it wasn’t the most documented of local attractions.

It hardly takes a snowstorm – I’d choose research over cleaning any day, so I got out my southern history books, and began a search online, and spent the rest of that afternoon and a portion of the next delving into the founding history of Georgia, Savannah, and Tybee Island, the presence of the Spanish, the native Americans, the pirates, and the Civil War.

The pamphlet specifically mentioned the ‘Euchee’ (Uchee/Yuchi) 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 was used by the Itza Maya, Apalache Creek/Itzate (Hitchiti). The native Americans who initially lived and hunted at the mouth of the Savannah River were in fact “Chicora,” and the Uchee, who lived along the banks of the Oconee, and at the headwaters of the Ogeechee, Chatanooga, and Savannah Rivers, while being associated for a time with the islands of Wahale (or Guale) including Tybee, may have merely adopted the word as their own, … but that’s another story altogether.

Twenty miles east of Savannah, Tybee is the most northerly of Georgia’s “Golden Isles.” A small strip of land juts westward from the island into a vast area of coastal marshlands. This strip which also has immediate access to the Savannah River shipping channel, became the location for two consecutive quarantines that operated during the late 1700s into the early 1800s.

The first, located on the tidal creek that now bears its name, was simply called a ‘lazaretto.’ At the end of the eighteenth century, it housed unfortunate European immigrants who contracted contagious diseases on board ship during the transatlantic voyage to America. It was also the ‘welcoming station’ for a host of African slaves who emerged from the cargo holds after the treacherous middle passage.

Like all seaports, Savannah could ill afford contamination of the mainland, so incoming vessels experiencing outbreaks of deadly scourges like yellow fever and cholera were required 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 the first site in ‘ruinous condition’ in 1785, so it was abandoned, and a new site opened across the way on nearby Cockspur Island. I also learned 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 had gone to bed, I went to the basement to finish putting my desk in order. Afterward, I sat down to write. I’d organized my thoughts into what I decided would be a poem about the history of Savannah, the quarantines, and the surrounding marshes. Since I’d never done enough boating around the island or in the marsh to be familiar with specific spots, I set out to describe the place as best I could. I’d barely gotten first two lines down, when a strange thing happened. It began as a slight tingle – then, as if someone had slipped up beside me, and touched me on the shoulder, there was whispering in my ear.

The words were gibberish, but the next moment I could feel myself standing shoulder-deep, in cold, rushing water. Tall green grasses were all around, and the banks smelled of salt. Suddenly, it dawned on me – I was in the marsh, and much to my horror, being sucked down by the undertow. For several anxious seconds, I felt I was drowning. The feeling made me nauseous. Then, as quickly as the sensations came, they were gone.

I sat there wondering if I were coming down with something, or had a heart attack, a stroke – whatever it was, it was very real. I went upstairs to get a drink of water, and came back to resume 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, while waiting to see what else might happen. Except for the fact that I couldn’t stop before a ten-versed poem emerged, the rest of the evening was uneventful.

The following afternoon, my mom called from Georgia to tell me that Emma Kelly had died. Now, I don’t believe for a minute this rather clairvoyant experience had anything to do with Emma, other than the occurrence served to mark her passing for me.

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

The strangest thing was that exactly one year later to the day, January 17th, I was crossing the Lazaretto, coming to live on Tybee Island. 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. I also flashed upon that night in the basement each time I drove over the bridge onto the island. I still think about it sometimes.

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

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

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. Or 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.

Mercifully, the passage of time has restored the natural tranquility of places like Lazaretto, and when it comes to pinning down real apparitions, some might say there’s more evidence of ‘non-human’ activity in the world, than of human ghosts. Still, our    ‘common ground’ holds many secrets. Who knows? As generation upon generation lies down in the dust of the earth, layer upon layer, perhaps the earth itself retains a collective memory of everything that happens here. Maybe some ‘hauntings’ are simply captured memories – like with a video recording, something triggers the ‘playback,’ and images from the past appear on the scene. But I’m no expert. I’m just a storyteller.

The poem I wrote that snowy night in Ohio is an historical tale influenced by what I “felt and sensed,” and of course, by what I believe. You’ll find it linked to the photo of the sunset above. Try reading it on the docks at the marina at dusk, and let me know what you think.

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