The Veil...a Charleston Ghost Story
By Martha Leigh Jones
A light fog settled over Charleston as the last chimes of midnight pealed the final lingering note. The cold black metal gate felt damp and forbidding to my touch. As it creaked open my senses quickened with anticipation of our reunion. The full moon cast long shadows of the tombstones as a gentle early autumn breeze sent chills down my spine and brought goose bumps to my bare arms. In the distance, a ship’s horn sounded sending out its lonesome call.
Always on the night of a full moon we meet with each time more thrilling than the last. I was completely addicted. His skin, cool to the touch, unfailingly warmed me to the core. His eyes seemed to darken to new depths with every encounter. Those eyes remained etched in my soul and dreams until I lost myself once more to their gaze. The shoulders broad, the arms strong and safe though most would die a thousand deaths to find themselves wrapped within them. I would die a thousand deaths if I missed even one embrace. His hair shone as black as the midnight sky and smelled of musk and an earthy spice.
As he slipped those powerful arms around my waist from behind and whispered my name, my knees weakened and my heart pounded as if it would explode right out of my chest.
“Mary Alice, my love. How I’ve missed you. The cycle of the moon is too slow. I’ve grieved for your touch and longed to hear your voice. Ah, you’ve done as I asked and worn the veil. You are exquisite.”
Turning into his embrace I inhaled deeply as his scent spilled over me. Assaulting me. Awakening me from a month-long famine. Every fiber of my being responded to him.
Never before had I felt such passion, overwhelming need, or all consuming love.
“Charles, Charles. Just hold me. Please. Just hold me close.”
And once again, I am home wrapped in the arms of this beautiful man.
On that memorable night we first met, many full moons ago, in his melodious, southern charmed voice, Charles told his story.
On April 12th, 1861, two events changed my mamma’s life forever. One, she gave birth to her first child, me. The second being the day the Civil War began in the Charleston Harbor at Fort Sumter. Mamma claimed she felt the house shake from the cannon fire as she lay bringing me into the world, but I’ve always thought that was a bit of embellishment on her part. She didn’t name me for several days because Daddy was off meeting with other plantation owners who were in various quandaries over the impending war. Once he returned home and pleased to learn of my birth Mamma said he insisted my name would be Charles Sumter Barnwell.
Daddy was the fifth generation Barnwell to reign over our prosperous rice plantation, Oak Hall. Being a proud southerner, he followed his heart and immediately joined the Confederacy as a commissioned officer. Leaving everything in Mamma’s hands he went off to fight and die in that horrific war. Like so many of the plantations throughout the south Oak Hall fell. However, Mamma proved to be a shrewd business woman because after the war our wealth, while certainly diminished, remained intact.
We moved to a graceful home in downtown Charleston that had weathered the ravages of war well and needed only minor repairs. It soon became a lively gathering place for what remained of the city’s elite. Invitations to Mamma’s parties were the most sought after in town. As one of the few wealthy widows she was also sought after among the eligible men in Charleston. She chose a fine man to become my step father when I was seven years old, and then went on to bless me with a darling little sister. Being ten years old when Elizabeth was born, she looked to me as her protector. As soon as she could walk she became my shadow whenever possible which wasn’t often since Mamma had plans for me.
At twelve, she thought I needed more discipline and packed me off to Porter Military Academy. Porter was located just a few miles from my home. So, in reality, I wasn’t packed off anywhere. I just wasn’t living under the same roof with my family any longer. Porter hammered many essential life lessons into my hard head. Its focus was to teach young southern gentleman such as myself to concentrate upon our actions, thoughts and habits and how each played an important character building role. It was Mamma’s fondest wish that when it was time for my departure from Porter I would exit as an exemplary specimen of a fine Charleston-born male. Of course, I fulfilled my mamma’s hopes and dreams as I matriculated to Columbia’s University of South Carolina and graduated first in my law class a few years later.
Elizabeth never lost her dependence on me and always clamored for my attention anytime I was home. She became a wonderful equestrian and an accomplished tennis enthusiast. Both were my passions as well. I liked to think she learned at my knee.
Finally I was home in beloved Charleston for good and practicing law at my step father’s firm. A twenty-four year old man on top of the world. When not at the firm I was riding, playing tennis and enjoying the attention of several lovely home grown beauties. Elizabeth introduced me to one of her friends with whom she had played tennis several times. Despite the fact she was four years older than Elizabeth a warm friendship had blossomed between them. Once we met, I certainly understood.
Mary Alice Simms was a gorgeous, kind, gentle young woman. Gentle, yet spirited. Her sense of humor would enliven even the dullest functions. At eighteen she was already a consummate story teller. I never could decide which was more mesmerizing, her beauty or her charming ways. Both held me spellbound. Hopelessly in love with Mary Alice after courting for several months, I proposed. She accepted.
The entire spring and early summer of my twenty-fifth year, 1886, seemed laced with enchantment. The firm voted me to partner on my birthday. Mary Alice and I set our wedding date for October 30th which brought about numerous celebrations. Her only bridal attendant was to be Elizabeth.
Since both were accomplished with needle and thread, they decided to design and sew Mary Alice’s wedding veil. Many hours were spent at Mary Alice’s home that summer planning the wedding while creating an exquisite veil.
One night, Tuesday, August 31st to be exact, they had cloistered themselves to sew the final stitches on this mutual work of art. It was one of those sultry Charleston summer nights. There was no moon visible so the stars were the main event. After nine o’clock I decided it was too alluring a night to spend alone. I would go to Mary Alice’s, entice them both out onto the piazza to look upon the star-filled sky. Mary Alice and I would then walk Elizabeth home and enjoy a slow romantic return walk just the two of us. A plan.
About a block from Mary Alice’s the strangest sensation came over me. The ground beneath my feet began to move. Surely it was my imagination. Suddenly houses to the left and right were shaking and some crumbling to the ground. I ran to her house by instinct as my eyes had quickly filled with dust. Midst all the mayhem, I determined the front portion of the second floor had collapsed into the lower level. People were screaming for help all around. Though the quake lasted for only a minute or two, to me it seemed to go on and on. One thought, one objective.
“I must get to them. I must find Mary Alice and Elizabeth!”
I started throwing debris aside to get through the piazza and into the front door of the house to the parlor since that’s where they usually sat. The timbers of the house were groaning and grinding. Faint whimpering, yes! Mary Alice! Though my sight adjusted quickly to the total darkness, I almost stumbled over her. Removing what appeared to be a section from the lath and plaster ceiling on top of her, I lifted my unconscious love oh so carefully then headed back in the direction from which I had entered. Once outside I saw blood running down her temple. Her right arm was most assuredly broken as it twisted at an odd angle. As tenderly as possible I laid her onto the ground. Elizabeth was still somewhere inside along with Mary Alice’s parents.
Entering the moaning house once more I treaded quietly, listening for any human sound. Close to where Mary Alice was found I saw her. Rather in the frightening blackness I could make out her white buttoned boot and a portion of her leg protruding from underneath a layer of boards, ceiling and furniture. Elizabeth! Again throwing the wreckage in madness to get to her until the last board was removed from my precious sister. Gently lifting her, I knew. Elizabeth was dead. In her arms, she protectively held the wedding veil. I quickly carried her out through the horrid mess that only minutes ago had been a lovely, gentile Charleston home and laid her beside the still unconscious Mary Alice. I prayed to God to help me find her parents alive.
Taking a deep breath of dusty air I ran back into the house. Again moving quietly, listening. I heard a weak crying which definitely came from upstairs. Though the front portion of the second floor had collapsed, the stairs remained standing and it seemed both levels of the back of the house were still partially intact but by the sound of it shaky at best. There was no question in my mind; I was going up those stairs. As I began to ascend, the first aftershock of the quake hit.
I died August 31st, 1886. Just as the date of my birth had been significant to history, so was the date of my death. On that summer night at 9:50 p.m. one of the most powerful and damaging earthquakes to hit the eastern United States, devastated my beloved Charleston. I did not yield to death peacefully. I wanted so badly to live. To see Mary Alice as the stunning bride she would have been and to vow before family and friends to cherish, love and protect her until death do us part. I wanted desperately to hold the babies our love surely would have produced and to watch them grow. I died not even knowing if she survived her injuries. That caused my soul great unrest and torment.
Elizabeth and I were buried in the family plot at our church’s cemetery. On the night of the first full moon following my death, I rose from my grave with great anxiety within my still chest. One thought, one objective.
“I must get to her. I must find Mary Alice!”
I knew I would not, could not, rest eternally until my soul was sated.
Full moon nights have drawn me from the ground to walk the earth month after month, year after year for over one hundred years. Finally finding my Mary Alice but not until she was buried in the Benton family plot not too far from where my family lies. According to her gravestone Mary Alice lived to be 90 years old. She died in 1957. It’s marked, Mary Alice Simms Benton. Wife of James Franklin Benton.
My soul should have been at peace knowing this, but it wasn’t. I was still searching. Unseen, I walked among folks on these hallowed nights the moon bestowed me. My beloved Charleston had become a great, beautiful city. Mostly I just walked. I could not rest. My soul was bound to this earth. Searching, ever searching—and waiting.
Charles told me his story. Some of it I knew. I am the great granddaughter of Mary Alice Simms Benton. I am named Mary Alice after her. I did not have the privilege of knowing her, but her story has been passed down to me through my grandmother and mother. I have been told I am the image of her. Charles confirmed this.
The wedding veil, handmade by my great grandmother and Charles’ sister, Elizabeth, was worn by her in loving memory of both Charles and Elizabeth on the day she married my great grandfather. It was treasured and protected and worn once again upon my grandmother’s head at her wedding then on to my mamma to adorn yet another bride.
My first encounter with Charles occurred autumn two years ago at dusk. I loved our family church’s cemetery and came often to visit my great grandmother’s grave though never before so late. A glorious full moon bulged from the sky just over the church’s steeple. The peacefulness of the balmy evening enticed me to linger as dusk surrendered into the moonlit night.
Inexplicably I was beckoned to the resting place of Charles Sumter Barnwell. I felt the spirit of this great man. If it were not for his heroism the night of the earthquake, I would not exist. My grandmother and mother had always told his story with awed reverence. Their appreciative love toward him was instilled within me. From these stories I learned Charles Sumter Barnwell was not only brave but charming, witty and exceptionally handsome. Looking up toward the steeple I wished upon the full moon to find such a man someday. The lovely veil was packed away waiting to be worn again, but I currently had no hopes of putting it to use.
Turning to leave I heard a strange noise. A slight fluttering, a swishing sound, then a strong musk and earthy spice aroma filled the air. There stood Charles Sumter Barnwell in all his glory. My heart knew this without a doubt.
“Mary Alice, my love. You have come to me at last.”
And I have come to him every single night of a full moon since. Tonight I have worn the veil.