the Myrtles plantation

The following is a transcription of the audio from Southern Gothic: The Podcast.

 

INTRODUCTION: St. Francisville, Louisiana

Nestled on a bluff overlooking the mighty Mississippi River, St. Francisville claims to be the second oldest town in the state of Louisiana,.  It began as a burial ground for the Spanish Capuchins, a monastic order that were given a land grant to build their monastery here near the end of the 18th century. Like many of the frontier settlements along the Mississippi River, St. Francisville became the product of a vibrant cultural mix, shaped by the influences of French Colonial rule, Spanish settlers and the African American slaves forced to labor in the fields. The town is in the heart of Louisiana’s rich plantation country, where prior to the Civil War more than half of America’s millionaires resided in immense plantations on the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Natchez.

...my name is Brandon Schexnayder and you are listening to Southern Gothic”

And the Myrtles Plantation is one of the area’s most infamous inhabitants.  Unfortunately, the distinction isn't just due to its beauty or charm; but rather, because many believe that the home is quite possibly the most haunted house in America. Today, visitors to The Myrtles are immediately greeted with eerie undertones.  Live oaks draped with Spanish moss line the drive up the grandiose Creole plantation, it’s long porch decorated with ornate cast-iron railings and it’s symmetry highlighted by the five gables above. The sticky, humid Louisiana climate has allowed crepe myrtles and azalea bushes to flourish on the property, inspiring the Plantation’s name. But amidst the mossy oak trees is a complex tale of life on the early Southern frontier of America, where tragedy and violence were a part of daily life… echoes of which quite possibly remain today.

 
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construction of Laurel Grove

The Myrtles Plantation was built by General David Bradford in 1796.  He had been a prominent lawyer, businessman, and deputy attorney general of Washington County, Pennsylvania; but in 1794 Bradford was forced to flee his home. Known to many as “Whiskey Dave,” General Bradford was wanted for treason for his role in the Whiskey Rebellion, an insurrection by the people of Western Pennsylvania against the new federal government of the United States. Tensions began in 1791, when a high excise tax was placed on whiskey.  Many farmers of the region distilled the spirit from their surplus grain for an additional source of revenue and trade; and this new federal tax would cut directly into their profit. Anger over the tax and a series of other grievances eventually erupted into violence, and in 1794 President George Washington was forced to send 13,000 militiamen to suppress the insurgency. An insurgency led by many of the same veterans who had fought for American freedom in the Revolutionary war only several years prior.

Legend has it President Washington personally placed a price on “Whiskey Dave’s” head for his role in the rebellion, forcing the Pennsylvanian attorney to flee his home. So Bradford headed south and ended up in the Spanish territory of Florida, just east of the Mississippi River, in a region known as Bayou Sara, which today would be considered a part of the state of Louisiana.  There, Bradford purchased 650 acres of land and began construction on a simple 8-room cottage that he would name “Laurel Grove.”  His wife Elizabeth and five children would soon join him and despite receiving a Presidential pardon in 1799 from John Adams, he remained on the plantation living the life of a wealthy planter for the remainder of his days.

The Legend of Chloe

When Bradford passed away in 1808, his widow Elizabeth took over Laurel Grove for several years, eventually hiring her son-in-law Clark Woodruff to run the operations. Clark had arrived in Bayou Sara around 1810, having left his boyhood home in Connecticut at the age of 19 to seek fortune in the United States’ newly acquired territory.  Then after fighting alongside Andrew Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans in 1814, Woodruff returned to study law. Eventually he would settle down, fall in love and marry Whiskey Dave’s daughter Sarah Mathilda, taking over the day-to-day operations of Laurel Grove for his mother-in-law, expanding the plantation’s farming operations.  He and Sarah had three children soon after: Cornelia, James, and Mary Octavia. Unfortunately tragedy was right around the corner, tragedy that has become the basis for one of the most well-known hauntings of the Myrtles Plantation- the haunting of Chloe.

Legend has it Chloe was a teenage slave owned by the Bradford family, who Clark Woodruff took a romantic interest in.  He brought the attractive young girl into his his home from the fields to serve as one of the family’s house slaves: cooking dinners, cleaning laundry, helping take care of the children, and of course, serving Woodruff’s sexual interests. Eventually, for reasons unknown, the coercive relationship began to sour and Clark lost interest in the girl.  She soon became paranoid and feared this would result in losing many of the privileges and freedoms she’d gained from her affair.  

One day Woodruff caught Chloe eavesdropping on him, her ear pressed against the door to his office as he did his business.  He was furious. In punishment, Woodruff cut off Chloe’s ear and sent her to work in the kitchen, doomed forever to wear a green turban that would hide the scars of her punishment— a turban that many have claimed her ghostly apparition still wears today.

But undeterred by his violent outburst, Chloe was desperate to win back Woodruff’s attention.  She secretly added a mild poison—an extract from boiled oleander leaves— into a cake for the three Woodruff children.  It’s believed she had meant to only use just enough to cause them a brief bout of illness, so she could nurse them back to health and ingratiate herself back into the Woodruff family’s good graces; but tragically, the plan backfired.  The cake’s ingredients proved fatal.  All three children and their mother Sarah Matilda were dead within hours.

Chloe fled the home and admitted the accidental murder to her fellow slaves, hoping they’d protect her; but instead, they turned on her, afraid that they would be accomplices in the murder.  Chloe was hanged for her crime by her fellow slaves. Her dead body, cut down and flung into the nearby Mississippi River without a proper burial.

Today, visitors to The Myrtles are haunted by a spirit that many believe could be the Chloe.  A ghostly apparition of a young woman, dressed in antebellum clothing has appeared in numerous photographs over the decades, and has been well-documented by many of the property’s owners and visitors. Unfortunately, history is not in total agreement with this salacious tale.

The Documentation

Sarah Matilda Woodruff and her children did not all die at the same time as this legend suggests. According to West Feliciana Parish records, Sarah passed on July 15, 1823.  Her children James and Cornelia did not follow her to the grave for another year, and even then they perished a month apart.  Furthermore, Clark and Sarah’s daughter Mary Octavia lived well into her sixties.

Melodramatic and tawdry, Chloe’s story is also depending on whom you talk to, either mostly or wholly fictitious. None of Woodruff’s family died from poisoning... None of the records of the plantation have turned up a slave named Chloe. This is unsurprising: Chloe’s tale plays up several basic stereotypes common to American folklore and reads more as an amalgamation of stock characters than the story of a real person.”
— Colin Dickey's "Ghostland"

Burial records also indicate that the cause of these premature deaths wasn’t poison but rather yellow fever, a horrendous viral disease spread by the infected mosquitoes that flourished in the swamps and bayous of what is now Southeastern Louisiana.  Annual outbreaks were common in the mid-nineteenth century, taking tens of thousands of lives a year, and affecting families of all genders, age, size and wealth up and down the lower regions of the Mississippi River. Aside from a lethally high fever, symptoms of the disease include severe chills, muscle pain and headaches.  Fortunately yellow fever was eradicated in the United States in the early twentieth century through vaccinations; but not soon enough for scores of families in the American South, like the Woordruffs.  The last yellow epidemic was in New Orleans in 1903.

While these facts dispute the legend of Chloe’s authenticity, the premature and tragic deaths of these members of the Woodruff family could still account for many of the hauntings at The Myrtles today.

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The Haunted Mirror

Mirrors have long had a reputation for connecting the living and the dead, and that is no different here at the Myrtles where the large, ornate parlor mirror displayed in the foyer is believed to be haunted by the apparitions of the Woodruffs that died here on the property. Proprietors and visitors alike have long reported sightings of spirits inside of the 200 year old mirror.  Most notably eerie are the hand prints and drip marks that appear to come from inside the mirror itself. No amount of cleaning has been successful in fixing the seemingly mundane issue, so several proprietors have even replaced the glass; but, to no avail, the marks return.  Is it possible Sarah Woodruff and her young children are the culprit, or is could these apparitions be the product of spirits of tragedies that would happen once the Woodruff family left the property.

Clark Woodruff sold Laurel Grove in 1834.  Unfortunately the family that would move into this home with tragic losses would not be stranger to tragedy.   

The Stirling’s and the Myrtles Plantation

In 1834 Ruffin Gray Stirling and his wife Mary Catherine Cobb purchased Laurel Grove from Clark Woodruff. The wealthy family already owned numerous plantations up and down the Mississippi River, and planned to make Laurel Grove their residence; but first, the Stirling’s began expanding the cottage— not only transforming it into the grandeur that can be seen today, but also renaming it “The Myrtles” after the beautiful flowering crepe myrtle trees that flourished on the property.

The Stirling’s expansion doubled the building's size to 22 rooms, featuring identical lady and gentleman’s parlors; a formal dining and game room; as well as a beautiful foyer for the entranceway.  Every aspect of the home was treated with ornate and meticulous detailing— from the elaborate cornices and ceiling medallions to the 300-pound chandelier in the foyer of the home.

But the Stirling family’s renovation and expansion of the Laurel Grove cottage wasn’t just aesthetic, it is also the earliest evidence that an owner of the “The Myrtles” might have believed spirits did indeed roam the property.  Locks were intentionally installed upside down during the renovation in hopes to confuse any spirits attempting to gain entry, and the front door was decorated with a intricate hand painted stained glass window that features patterns of the French cross in hopes to ward off evil. The Stirlings would enjoy their life here at their new home for over decades before tragedy began to strike yet another resident of the infamous “Myrtles Plantation.”

In 1854 Ruffin Stirling died from tuberculosis, or what at the time was known as consumption— so his widow Mary took over leadership of the family’s vast holdings, successfully running the business until— like Sarah Bradford before her— she handed over the operations to her son-in-law William Winter.

Legend of Cleo

Unfortunately in 1861, three-year old Kate Winter, daughter to William and Sarah, contracted yellow fever.  It was the same terrible virus that took the lives of the Woodruff children decades prior, but legend has it that this time a local voodoo priestess named Cleo was summoned to the plantation to help save the poor girl.  She spent days in little Kate’s bedroom performing rituals and chanting, desperately trying to save the young girl, but in the end Cleo was unsuccessful. Kate Winter passed away on January 29, 1861.  

William Winter, now heart-broken and furious, blamed the loss of his daughter on Cleo, and viciously had the Voodoo practitioner hung as retribution for her failed attempt to save Kate.  Whether this violent outburst is legend or fact is unknown, but many have hypothesized that it is actually the Voodoo Princess Cleo’s spirit that roams the plantation, not Chloe. Of course, the spirit of Kate is also believed to still inhabit the bedroom where she died.  The large four-poster bed where she took her last breath remains in the home to this day, and many have been witness to it’s haunting, claiming the bed will intermittently rise off the floor and shake violently as if possessed.  Century old gouges in the hardwood floor beneath the bed lend credibility to this claim; but even if the stories are true, are these ghostly outbursts the product of the poor three-year old girl lost to yellow fever, or is it the handiwork of a violently murdered voodoo priestess still hoping to save that little girl?

The Civil War Reaches The Myrtles

The same year the Winter family endured the loss of their daughter Kate, the United States became embroiled in the Civil War.  Only several days prior to the young girl’s death in 1861, the State of Louisiana declared it’s independence and adopted an Ordinance of Seccession during a state convention only thirty miles south in the capital of Baton Rouge.  Both the Union and Confederate Armies would soon make controlling the Mississippi River a major part of their strategy, putting many of Louisiana’s plantations directly in harm’s way. The Myrtles would barely survive the struggle.

Union soldiers ransacked the home, and the family fortune was lost-- tied up in Confederate currency that no longer had value.  Some legends claim that at least three Union soldiers were killed in the home, and although no records verify the truth to this claim there have been numerous eerie occurrences and claims of the spirits of these men still wandering the grounds.

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Murder at the Plantation

It wasn’t till 1871 when the only historically documented murder to take place at the Myrtles occured. An unkown visitor appeared on the porch of the Creole Plantation and fatally shot William Winter in the door way of the Myrtles. The man disappeared into the night, leaving Winter to stumble back into the home in search of his of his wife Sarah, dragging himself up the staircase to the second floor, but upon reaching the 17th step he fell victim to his wounds, passing away in his wife’s arms.  

William Drew Winter was buried near his daughter Kate at the Grace Episcopal Church cemetery, in St. Francisville. The murder was never solved and Sarah was unable to move on after losing her husband.  The family remained at the Myrtles after his death for more than a decade, till Mary Cobb-- matriarch of the Stirling family-- passed away leaving the plantation strapped with debt, forcing her heirs to sell the home that their family had owned for half of a century.  A string of new owners would purchase the property, but fortunately none would be forced to endure the tragedies that the Bradford and Stirling families.

The idea that I would one day be the owner of the house considered by many to be the most haunted house in the United States had never entered my mind.”
— Frances Kermeen

America’s Most Haunted Home

In the early twentieth century, much of the land surrounding the plantation would become divided up among heirs of some of The Myrtles new owners, but the house itself would remain in tact, eventually purchased in 1970 by James and Frances Kermeen Myers.  The couple restored the home to the eerie majesty that can still be seen and visited today, converting it into a bed and breakfast.  But it didn’t take long for them to begin believing that the property where they were living was in fact haunted by many of the tragedies of it’s past.  In Frances’ memoir, published years later, she writes about the many eerie occurrences she experienced over her years as the owner, making her claim that the Myrtles Plantation is  “America’s Most Haunted Home.” A claim that many still believe is entirely accurate.

Today visitors to The Myrtles can still book an overnight stay in one of the same rooms inhabited by the families who’ve been a part of the Plantation’s tragic history. Some claim to see the apparitions of Chloe and Cleo wandering the property, others to have heard the footsteps of William Winter climbing the staircase in search of his wife—footsteps that stop on the 17th step where he allegedly passed away.

Guests who stay in the “Doll Room” often report waking up to antique dolls inexplicably tossed about the room, or their hands and hair being tugged upon by cold icy hands the size of a young child.  Even more terrifying, some have even awoken to the porcelain dolls lying in bed next to them, inches away, staring at them from their pillow. But whether or not the Myrtles Plantation truly deserves the designation of “America’s Most Haunted Home” will continue to be debated; but one thing is certain, the stories, legends and hauntings of the home provide deep insight into the history and tragedy that came from settling the early frontier of American South.