“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 junk mail that had accumulated in the middle drawer, I noticed a small blue pamphlet brought back from Tybee Island the summer before. It was a folksy promotional piece picked up at the Tybee Lighthouse gift shop, and it 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, this was news to me. Of course, it wasn’t the most documented of local attractions.
It hardly takes a snowstorm — I’d choose research over cleaning any day — to get out my southern history books, and begin an online search. I ended up spending the rest of the evening, and much of the next day at the local library, delving into the fascinating history of Georgia: Savannah and Tybee Island, in particular, including the presence of the Spanish, the native Americans, the pirates, and events surrounding the Civil War between the states.
The pamphlet had specifically mentioned the ‘Uchee’ Indians (Euchee/Yuchi). I’ve since learned that while it’s true that the word “Tybee” is derived from the word Taube, which means ‘salt,’ the word is actually Itza Maya, Apalache Creek/Itzate (Hitchiti).
The Euchee lived along the banks of the Oconee, and at the headwaters of the Ogeechee, Chatanooga, and Savannah Rivers, and while being associated for a time with the islands of Wahale (or Guale) including Tybee, they seem to have merely adopted the word as their own. The native American hunters who initially inhabited the mouth of the Savannah River were, in fact, “Chicora,” 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 with 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 also served as 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 whom Christ raised from the dead. Research indicates that remote portions of the first quarantine, a 104-acre tract purchased in 1767 from Josiah Tattnall, served as a leper’s colony.
After continuous use throughout the Revolution, in 1785 the Savannah Grand Jury reported the first site in “ruinous condition,” and it was abandoned. A new site was opened across the way on nearby Cockspur Island. I also discovered that in 1954, the Georgia Historical Society placed a marker (pictured below), at the original site’s general vicinity along U.S. Highway 80 East.
That next evening around 9:30 p.m., after everyone else had gone to bed, I returned to the basement and sat down to write. I’d already organized my thoughts into what I decided would be a poem about the history of Savannah, Tybee, and the quarantines. Since I’d never done enough boating around the island or through the marsh to be familiar with specific spots, I set out to describe the place using my imagination 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 suddenly, I could feel myself standing shoulder-deep, in cold, rushing water. Tall green grasses were all around, and the banks smelled of salt, and much to my horror, I was being sucked down by the undertow. For several anxious seconds, I felt I was drowning. Then, as quickly as the sensation came, it was gone.
I sat there wondering if I were coming down with something, or maybe, I’d had a heart attack, a stroke — whatever it was, it was real. I left the computer to get a drink of water, and a few minutes later, feeling okay, I resumed my seat 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. I decided to keep writing. In the back of my mind, I’m sure I was also 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 night was uneventful.
Next morning, my mom called from Georgia to tell me that Emma Kelly had died yesterday. 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 passed 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 the Marshall 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 clothing walking out on the docks in the wee hours, 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 it definitely qualified as 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, costly visit to Lazaretto Creek, another lonely little corner of the world, where outcasts perished. For those dying 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, 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 as layer upon layer, generation upon generation lays down in the dust of the earth. There are those who believe the earth has a collective consciousness, a recorded memory of everything that’s ever happened here. Maybe some places hold memories that can ‘speak’ to us beyond the obvious. Maybe some ‘hauntings’ are like video recordings. Something triggers the ‘playback,’ … and the memory plays.
The poem I wrote that snowy night in 2001 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 some night, and let me know what you think.
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Copyright 2011, The Tybee Times
Copyright 2012-2023, Real Spooks – Cynthia Farr Kinkel