By Peg Eastman
The Lowcountry has a rich heritage of supernatural tales. Our former Congressman Arthur Ravenel, Jr., has graciously related some of his family lore with Mercury readers.
As readers know, the Ravenel family is descended from French Huguenots who came to the Carolinas in the 1680s. Their country seat was a plantation called Wantoot, located about six miles from Pinopolis. Although Wantoot now lies beneath the waters of the Santee-Cooper hydroelectric project, its “ghost” story has survived.
Shortly after the Revolution, General William Moultrie took a shortcut as he rode home one night. At Simons Hill near Wantoot, Moultrie thought he saw “the Devil” ride beside him. Something with fiery eyes seemed to go before, beside, and behind his terrified horse. Not being able to determine exactly what the apparition was, Moultrie was extremely agitated when he reached Wantoot. He told the Ravenels about the incident, and the next day they went out to investigate the area where “the Devil” appeared. They found nothing and surmised that the apparition must have been phosphorescent light that sometimes appeared at night over the marshy grounds and swamps in the region. Upon being questioned about it later, Moultrie lamented “will this story never die.”
In the heyday of Charleston’s antebellum prosperity, the Ravenel brothers were prominent members of the community. Daniel Ravenel was president of the Planters and Mechanics Bank and had the honor of being chairman of the committee that brought the remains of John C. Calhoun to Charleston for the state burial in St. Philip’s churchyard. Brother Henry was president of the Union Bank, and as a captain in the Washington Light Infantry, went to Florida in the Seminole War. Brother Edmund was one of the founders of the Medical College of South Carolina, as well as being a chemist and a conchologist of international standing. Brother John was president of the South Carolina Railroad; he and his brother William ran Ravenel & Company, a large shipping enterprise.
William Ravenel was born in 1806 and married Eliza Butler Pringle in 1836. They had 11children. Ravenel was educated in Charleston and entered the counting room of Ravenel and Stevens in 1823. He was so successful in commerce that he built a handsome mansion overlooking Charleston harbor (now 13 East Battery). Family tradition states that he loved to stand on his piazza and watch his ships sail over the bar into the harbor.
Number 13 East Battery has its supernatural story. After Rose Ravenel died, the house was sold and the Ravenels gathered to clear out their property. One afternoon while they were upstairs in the drawing room, they heard the front door open and shut. Then they heard the sound of “deliberate steps” walking down the long foyer below them. Thinking that it was a family member, they ran to the head of the stairs and called down to enquire who was there. All was silent. Then they heard the same “deliberate footsteps” return down the foyer, and the door shut once again. Thinking it was an intruder, they rushed downstairs to investigate. To their amazement, no one was anywhere in the vicinity! Afterwards they decided that the mysterious footsteps must have belonged to an ancestor, someone who had come in to commemorate an end of the long Ravenel occupancy. Nosey intruder or Ravenel ghost? You decide.
William Ravenel also purchased a farm west of the Ashley River. Known as Farmfield, it provided the family’s fresh produce. The Ravenels spent several months of the year at Farmfield, living in a small house on the property until the 21-room house was completed in 1854.
During the last year of “the war,” Yankee bombardments forced the Ravenels who were not in Confederate service to abandon their lovely mansion overlooking Charleston harbor. They found refuge at Farmfield. Later the family refugeed to Society Hill. When Northern troops visited Farmfield in 1865, miraculously, they did not burn down the spacious country house. Carpetbaggers rented the property after hostilities ceased and used the farmhouse for corn storage. In spite of the vicissitudes, Farmfield remained in the Ravenel family.
In the 1920s Farmfield was a commercial dairy farm run by William Ravenel’s grandsons, Arthur Ravenel, Sr., and Harold Ravenel.
Arthur Ravenel, Jr., and his family later lived in the roomy old farmhouse. One evening while he was at a National Guard meeting, Ravenel’s wife Louise called him with disturbing news. She had locked the house and was upstairs with their children when she heard someone coming up the stairs. She enquired, “Arthur, is that you?” Greeted only with silence, she took off her high-heeled shoe for some type of defense, but nobody was there. When she called the police to report an intruder, she heard somebody downstairs pick up the phone. The police found no footprints and commented that the dogs didn’t bark.
On another occasion, Louise was in the house with one of her children, and the doors were locked. She heard a noise and saw the form of a man that looked like a swarm of gnats at the bottom of the stairs.
Then there were the footsteps walking in the attic. These experiences were not confined to the lady of the house. Her daughter heard the overhead footsteps, and her aunt who was visiting from New York saw someone waving out of the window of the empty attic. Even a babysitter took his charge next door after he heard a mysterious click on the phone line.
These occurrences were not limited to Ravenel properties. In the 1960s Arthur Ravenel, Jr., purchased cattle on Kiawah Island from Mr. C. C. Royal, then its owner. In the deal, he got two years of grazing rights and a large quantity of baled hay stored on the second floor of the old Vanderhorst Mansion.
During the winter, a good way to check on the cows was to call them out of the woods and marshes for a treat of baled hay. One particularly cold afternoon Ravenel did just that. As it was pretty wet, he could not get to the house in his truck. So he took his horse Mike along, parked before he started bogging down and rode Mike to the edge of the clearing.
He tied his mount and climbed to the second floor of the old home and started throwing bales of hay from a front window. Suddenly, a not-distinctive voice hollered, “Hey, Arthur.” Ravenel called back, “Be there in a minute” and threw down another bale. He leaned out the window and yelled, “Who’s that called my name?” There was no answer. This seemed strange as the voice sounded so strong and so near. When he got outside, Ravenel was surprised to discover that not a soul was there. It had rained the night before, and he looked for prints in the mud or tracks on the beach. Nothing, and there was no boat or person in sight.
As Ravenel rode old Mike back to his truck in the gathering dusk, he had an uneasy, eerie feeling and several times looked back over his shoulder. Was this yet another “ghost” encounter?