The Phantom Flames of Tuscaloosa
The following is a transcription of the audio from Southern Gothic: The Podcast.
Introduction: Alabama Fever
In 1814, America experienced a great land rush, known as ‘Alabama Fever.’ It followed the Creek War, a conflict initially between the indigenous tribes that made up the Creek Confederation, yet soon enough involved the white militia, fueled by American hunger for land. Fighting lasted roughly a year, eventually ending with the American General, Andrew Jackson forcing the Creeks to surrender more than 21 million acres of land to the United States.
As a result, land-grants were offered to settlers and speculators looking for new opportunities further south, and a frenzy erupted. Dr. John Drish was one of these men, a widowed Virginian with great ambition; who after migrating to the new state of Alabama, built a beautiful home he named Monroe Place. But in the near two centuries since Dr. Drish’s death, stories have circulated surrounding this home as it fell into disrepair and dilapidation. Stories of either eerie lights of unknown origins or the apparition of flames engulfing the grand tower he built as an entranceway. A tower where many believe he met his fate.
The Birth of Tuscaloosa
The city of Tuscaloosa, Alabama was founded in 1816, when settler Thomas York arrived with his family and built themselves a cabin. Over time, more Americans arrived and settled in the area, and a small town was born. Originally, the town was called ‘The Falls of Tuscaloosa.’ It was named in honor of the legendary Mississippian chief and warrior. Tuskaloosa was known for his leadership during the Battle of Mabila in 1540, when he led 2500 native warriors in an attack against the invading Europeans, led by the Spanish Explorer Hernando de Soto. It is unknown exactly how long the battle lasted, but in the end, the Spanish managed to escape from the fortified Mabila, and after they did, de Soto ordered his men to set fire to the village. The Spanish losses at the battle were the greatest seen during the whole of de Soto’s Expedition. And although an exact counting of native losses does not exist, the Spanish accounts of the battle place the total between 2500 and 4000 dead, this number includes both native warriors and the inhabitants of the destroyed village of Mabila, warrior chief Tuskaloosa included.
When Thomas York settled on the land centuries later, he chose a location that had once long been home to various Native tribes whose trails all converged at on the Black Warrior River-- the southernmost point that would allow safe river crossings under various conditions. What was once the location of the great Mississippian Civilization was now a small, but growing American town. Eventually, the city’s name name was shortened from ‘The Falls of Tuscaloosa’ to simply Tuscaloosa. Two years after York’s arrival, the city’s population and economy grew quickly and was officially incorporated on December 13, 1819. The next day, Alabama would officially enter the Union as its 22nd state.
The Life of Dr. John Drish
Dr. John R. Drish was born in Virginia in 1795. At the age of twenty-three, he married and started a family; tragically though, within a year of his daughter Catherine’s birth, Drish became a widower and was left to care for the child alone. So he sent the infant to live with relatives, and in 1822 Dr. Drish migrated south to the new settlement town of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. There, the charming Southern man met a rich widow named Sarah Owen, and the couple married in 1825. Catherine would re-joined her father in Alabama while he continued to grow his fortune; not only practicing medicine, but also acting as a building contractor for the growing community, and hiring out the use of his highly-skilled slaves as labor. These artisans’ craftsmanship was instrumental to much of the beautiful, ornate plasterwork of the early buildings in the young upstart city. According to the 1830 Federal Census, Dr. Drish owned a total of 25 slaves (both men and women) and among their ranks were fine plaster workers, woodcarvers and ironworkers.
By 1837, Drish had briefly served in the Alabama House of Representatives, had expanded his real estate holdings and had made a fortune on his investments in early railroad lines. He was now wealthy enough to retire from his medical practice and move into his new, beautifully constructed mansion that his family would call home.
Construction of Monroe Place
The construction on Dr. Drish’s new mansion began in 1835. It would become one of the first plantation homes in Tuscaloosa, the focal point of a 350-acre plantation bordering the city limits. The house was elaborately designed and decorated in the Greek Revival Style. The exterior of the home featured Doric Porticoes to the front and rear with two-story pilasters dividing each bay. Inside, the rooms were elaborately and ornately decorated with embellished plasterwork and fine woodworking. Each room was designed uniquely. Dr. Drish had clearly built his home with the idea of using it as a showroom for potential clients, to display the abilities and craftsmanship of his slaves.
The ornate ornamentation seen in the house, as well as the overall architecture of the home, were designed by Dr. Drish himself, likely inspired by William Nichols, a prominent architect of the time known for his stately designs. Like many of the wealthy men during this era, Drish was considered a gentleman architect, having no formal education in the field, but working with wealthy clients to design properties that were visually pleasing. Drish’s background as a building contractor allowed him to further his architectural skills.
Construction on his grand new home took two years, and once complete, the Mansion would become known as Monroe Place. But many claim that life in Monroe Place was often filled with sorrows and great family afflictions.
Tragedy at the Drish House
John and his daughter Catherine’s relationship had long been strained, thought to have even became violent and abusive at times. One story purports that John did not approve of a man his daughter had fallen in love with, so he locked her in her room at Monroe Place, providing her with little to no food or water, until she finally relented to his wishes to end the relationship. Drish then drove the lover from town and forced Catherin to marry William King. The couple went on to have three children of her own, including a daughter who would not live past four; but their marriage ended abruptly when King divorced Catherine on the grounds of insanity. He then sent his wife and their two sons back to her father’s home, to live with Dr. Dish and her step-mother Sarah Owen once again.
By this time, the family had lived in Monroe Place for over a decade, and Catherine’s return would coincide with an extensive remodel of the home. Drish would dabble in the Italianate-style, making several changes to the mansion’s facade, but most notably he added a three-story brick tower. Many claim that Drish added the structure to allow him to jealousy spy over the construction of the home rival planter Robert Jemison, Jr. Unfortunately it is this tower that would become not only the site of tragedy, but also the focal point of the Drish House’s supposed hauntings.
In 1860, Dr. John Drish owned almost 90 slaves, and when emancipation came to Alabama 1865, he was financially ruined. He gained a reputation in town as an unlucky gambler and alcoholic. In 1867, when he fell to his death in his home, some claim that alcohol was the cause. There are several stories that surround the tragedy of Dr. Drish’s death. One says that Drish threw himself from a second-floor balcony; another says that he was merely drunk and fell down the stairs, and still another that he had been attempting to quit drinking altogether and lost control from the effects of the withdrawals. Yet whatever story might be true, Dr. John Drish was found dead after a mighty fall on July 25, 1867, leaving his wife Sara a widow twice over. For years afterwards, the servants would claim to hear the echoes of stumbling footsteps and deathly cry.
Dr. Drish had left elaborate burial requests for his funeral and Sara made sure that they were carried out to the letter, but after her beloved was buried at the nearby Greenwood Cemetery, she became obsessed in her grief, growing more and more eccentric as time passed; insisting that when she died, she was to have exactly the same elaborate burial as her husband had received. So focused on her dying wish, Sara even stored away the candles from her husband’s funeral, so they could also be used for her own. But when she died fourteen years later, on April 14, 1884, those funerary candles could not be found. Sarah Drish’s final wish could not be met, and as a result many believe this to be the origin of the haunting that soon begin at Drish House.
The Decline of a Plantation
Following the death of Mrs. Drish, the home changed hands several times. Monroe Place would remain one of Tuscaloosa’s finest private residences, until the turn of the 20th century, when it would find its way into ruin and dilapidation. The acreage surrounding the once great home was sold and used as the site of Tuscaloosa’s first major expansion, the farmland giving way to urbanization.
In 1906 the Tuscaloosa Board of Education acquired the building and opened the Jemison School, which remained until 1925 when the building was sold to the Tuscaloosa Wrecking Company. Though the beginning of the Great Depression is often cited as the stock market crash of October 24, 1929, for those in Tuscaloosa the economy had already been failing long before then, and the fortunes of the Drish House’s were in a parallel free-fall. A photograph of the mansion in its partially decayed state as an auto parts warehouse was featured in the book from “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” The classic work, published in 1941, documented the lives of Alabama sharecroppers and tenant farmers living in desperate poverty. The photo proved so powerful, that it was eventually displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Alabama’s economy would not rebound until the beginning of World War II, but the Drish house was not so lucky. The building would became a church until finally in 1994 it had reached such a point of dilapidation that it was considered for demolition.
“Death Lights in the Tower”
But as the building’s condition deteriorated, the legends surrounding it only grew, and these new stories were different to the ones that began after Dr. Drish died. Instead of seeing apparitions of the Doctor and hearing the disembodied sounds of his fall, it was purported that Dr. Drish’s beloved tower was sometimes seen to be on fire. Accounts of these flames happened repeatedly over the years. Alabaman folklorists Kathryn Tucker Windham and Maragaret Gillis Figh were among the first to chronicle these claims in their 1969 book, 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey. They, like many, claim these quote “Death Lights in the Tower” were the ghost of Mrs. Sarah Drish, saying:
“According to tales about her home, it is her frustrated ghost who returns to alarm the neighborhood by burning candles in the tower, candles which she wanted to be burned around her coffin at her death.”
Other stories have appeared over the years, each claiming a possible origin of the phantom flames in the tower. According to one legend, a runaway slave once hid in the tower. Eventually, after thirst and starvation took its toll, he was forced to reveal himself and handed over to his master. In punishment he was burned to death, and some claim that to this day, the fire plagues the tower as a reminder of his gruesome execution. Yet despite the stories and the uncertainty behind the origin of the ‘death lights,’ or the ‘flames in the tower’ there has been no evidence found to suggest there ever actually was a fire in the tower, nor was the tower ever on fire.
Restoration of the Drish House
In the end, it was time that saved the dilapidated Drish House from demolition in 1994. The building had remained standing long enough for historic preservationists to take interest and save the home. Although spared demolition in 1994, the Drish House was still in such disrepair that in 2006 the Alabama Historical Commission added it to the “Places in Peril” list. Over the next decade the home would slowly be stabilized and restored. Today, thanks to Dr. John Drish, the “gentleman architect,” the Drish House is considered to be one of the most distinctive mixes of Greek Revival and Italianate style Architecture found in Alabama. But through the decade and centuries, the stories of the death lights in the tower continue. Ethereal funeral candles still burning, a constant reminder of a widow’s grief.