Thursday, February 18, 2016

Evergreen's Laurie Cotter investigated reportedly haunted Gaineswood in 1975

Gaineswood plantation in Demopolis.
While looking through some old newspapers the other day, I came across an interesting story that ran on the front page of the Feb. 20, 1975 edition of The Evergreen Courant. Published under the headline, “It’s ‘ghostly’ for Laurie Cotter,” the article let readers know that Laurie Cotter of Evergreen was gathering information about “the ghost at Gaineswood” as part of her studies at Birmingham-Southern College.

Many of you in the reading audience will be familiar with Gaineswood, which is an old plantation house in Demopolis in Marengo County. Gaineswood has the reputation for being one of the most haunted locations in all of Alabama thanks to Kathryn Tucker Windham’s classic 1969 book, “13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey,” which contains an entire chapter about Gaineswood titled “The Unquiet Ghost at Gaineswood.”

During Birmingham-Southern’s 1975 interim term, Cotter visited Demopolis, “talked with former residents of the house, the author of a book on Alabama ghosts and a 100-year-old man from Demopolis.” One is left to wonder if Cotter interviewed Windham about Gaineswood, and who the 100-year-old man from Demopolis was.

In the article, Cotter, who was a freshman psychology major, said that she believed in ghosts, but had never seen one. She said that ghostly organ music and occasional screams were reportedly heard at Gaineswood, and some say that the ghost of a former governess’s daughter was responsible for those eerie sounds. Other people told her that the ghost stories started after one of the home’s owners locked his daughter in the house for a while, while other people say that the ghostly organ music was nothing more than wind blowing across an old chimney.

Cotter’s research project was supervised by members of the Education and History Departments at Birmingham Southern and was designed to give her experience in researching local history through interviews.

Finding this article reminded me of the field trip I made to Gaineswood two years ago, in February 2014. A few weeks before that, I spotted in Linden’s “Democrat-Reporter” newspaper an article that said that the Gaineswood National Historic Landmark would be offering special “Up, Down and All Around” tours on Sat., Feb. 1. Visitors to this famous plantation house, which dates back to the 1840s, usually only get to tour the first two floors, but during this special one-day event, visitors were allowed to check out the home’s spooky basement and rooftop observatory, two areas that are usually off limits to guests. It sounded like an opportunity I didn’t want to pass up.

I’d had a visit to this house on my “bucket list” for a while because it has the reputation for being one of the most haunted locations in all of Alabama. Growing up, just about every kid at Frisco City Elementary School read about Gaineswood in the school library’s worn copy of “13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey.”

According to Windham, Gaineswood is haunted by the spirit of Evelyn Carter, who was the sister of a housekeeper employed by the home’s original owner, General Nathan Bryan Whitfield, who died in 1868. Evelyn was a native of Virginia and her father was out of the country serving as the U.S. consul to Greece. Evelyn, a talented musician, came to visit her sister at Gaineswood, but died a short time later during one of the coldest Alabama winters in memory.

She’s believed to haunt Gaineswood to this day because she didn’t receive a timely burial. Due to roads covered with ice and snow and the fact that her father was out of the country, her body was stored for a time in the basement at Gaineswood. Soon thereafter, people in the house began hearing ghostly music and the sound of strange, unexplained footsteps, which didn’t stop even when Evelyn’s body was finally transported to Virginia for a proper burial.

Another great book that also discusses Gaineswood and the ghost of Evelyn Carter is “Haunted Alabama Black Belt” by David Higdon and Brett Talley. Published in 2013, this outstanding book also details the mysterious tales of Carter’s final days and the unexplained events that followed her death. If you’ve never read this book, I highly recommend that you check it out.

Aside from all the spooky stuff, the house is amazing, and the February 2014 tour was especially well done. With tour guides in all the main areas of the house, we started the tour in the basement and then checked out all of the rooms on the first and second floors. We ended the tour with a visit to “The Ring” on the roof of the house. It’s there that it’s said that the Whitfield family would play their musical instruments on summer evenings, and the circular observatory also gives you an impressive, panoramic view of Demopolis. The staff was especially well versed in the history of the home and its contents, and they were happy to answer all of our questions.

The property is currently operated as a museum by the Alabama Historical Commission, and if you’ve never been to visit, I highly recommend it, especially if you enjoy Alabama history. Gaineswood is located at 805 South Cedar Ave. in Demopolis and is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. It’s also open on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Sundays from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, call 334-289-4846.

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