St. Philip’s Church in Charleston is home to the oldest congregation in the city, established in 1838. It boasts a soaring bell tower and columns in addition to a stone and iron fence surrounding both it’s graveyards–yes, that’s right, it has two. One, adjacent to the church, is (historically) for those of old Charleston families, while across the street a much larger one is home to the deceased “from off” (i.e., those not born to a Charleston family. No matter how many decades you live in Charleston, you’ll still always be “from off,” according to the locals).
These graveyards are notorious for their own reasons, but for today we’re going to focus on one story in particular: A woman named Susan, whose ghost has been seen in the church yard, and heard crying.
A little backstory on the tale can be found here, as well as the photograph I’m about to reference, but I’ll sum it up for you.
On June 10, 1987, a photographer was out testing a new camera by taking shots of the area. On his way home, the light was fading and nearly gone, but he still had three shots left on the roll, so he decided to take pictures of St. Philips. Alas, as it was about 9pm and the church closed around 5 or 6, it was locked up tight when he arrived and he couldn’t get into the graveyard. However, being a local, he knew there was a gate connecting the church yard to the back of a school next door, where the groundskeepers would enter, and frequently forgot to lock. Much to his chagrin, however, he discovered that someone had been vigilant and locked the gate. So, he stuck his hands through the fence, and took three photos in the dark before calling it a night.
A short time later when the film was developed, the photographer and his wife were looking through the photos. The first two graveyard shots were completely dark, but the last one can be seen below:
“Well, that’s odd,” the photographer said. “I don’t remember seeing a woman that night.”
After several rounds with the developer and Kodak, convinced the photo contained an error or had been tampered with, Kodak finally determined there had been no alternations made to the photo or the film, and the camera was in perfect working order. There was no explanation for the ghostly figure in the picture.
A little detective work adds some additional details. Below, you’ll see a shot of the same area, from a different angle, which I took the night of our tour.
And a zoomed in image to show roughly where the woman would be kneeling:
In that place is a grave belonging to a woman named Susan, who died on June 16, 1888. Beside her is the grave of her stillborn daughter, June 10, 188.
For many years people weren’t sure if she was crying or praying, or otherwise mourning her daughter at the grave. Until about 2005, when a tour guide was leading a group past the church one rainy November evening.
As they approached the church, the guide told the group about Susan’s ghost and how no one was sure what she did by her daughter’s grave. But as they stopped outside the gate, the rain came down harder, so they moved under the overhang by the front door to finish the story.
The guide, however, realized that one of the tourists was missing. She went back and found her clinging to the iron fence in a trace, staring at Susan’s grave.
“Ma’am, aren’t you cold? Come on, let’s get out of the rain.”
“Tell them I’m singing.”
“Tell. Them. I’m. Singing. I’m singing my daughter a lullaby.”
A moment later the woman came out of her trance and looked around, apologizing. “I’m so sorry. Sometimes these feelings just come over me. I hope I didn’t scare you.”
And so, now we know that Susan is doing something she couldn’t do for her daughter when she was alive, trying to comfort her in death.
Susan’s ghost has been known to make pregnant women feel ill and give visitors headaches. She’s sometimes seen wandering the graveyard crying.
But no one has seen her since that fateful day when we finally learned that her dying wish was to sing her daughter a lullaby.
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