Phillips shares eerie tales with library audience

Published 5:24 pm Friday, October 20, 2017

Stories of unearthed treasures long since buried by wealthy planters, of steamboats ablaze with fire that later return to run their ghostly river course; of unsettled spirits roaming antebellum manses and mysterious happenings when cameras refuse to work at certain grave sites—all of these tales and more were shared on Tuesday afternoon at the Greenville-Butler County Public Library by Jim Phillips. Phillips is a regional historian, researcher for the University of Alabama, professional videographer and lover of all things related to Alabama history.

In the Camellia City for the first time (“I am leaving here and visiting your beautiful historic downtown. Can’t believe I haven’t been here before”) Phillips said he often speaks about the state’s rich history at retirement villages, historical societies, libraries, civic clubs and churches.

With Halloween only weeks away, Phillips amended his stories of “Lost Antebellum Alabama” with some ghostly tales for his Camellia City audience.

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“I have a cousin who once lived in an antebellum home . . . it was said that Union soldiers once hid there while on the run from General Forrest and there are bloodstains still on the walls. Once during a dinner party there, she told me a vase began to move from one end of a Chippendale (sideboard) to the other entirely by itself . . . another time she was in the kitchen cutting up carrots . . . and the brand-new paper towel roll began to unwind, until the whole thing was unrolled and on the floor,” Phillips said.

“And if I didn’t believe her, she said she would give me names and phone numbers of the witnesses to some of these.”

On another occasion, his cousin was alone in the house at night, reading a book, when she heard footsteps on the stairs.

“A little African-American boy walked into her bedroom, dressed in old britches, leather boots and the sort of shirt Errol Flynn would have worn in a swashbuckler. He never looked at her, but went to the fireplace and leaned down to look up into the chimney before crawling into it . . . later he went out to the second story walkway and walked all around the house before coming back in and going back downstairs. She said he never looked at her and she didn’t hear the door open or close.”

Phillips’ relative discovered that a young slave boy had, in fact, been killed after he was discovered hiding in one of the home’s chimneys in a bid to escape.

Another eerie tale revolved around a home in Shelby Springs, Alabama. The house was built on the foundation of an old hotel that dated back to the mid-19th century, when the area’s mineral springs made it a popular resort destination in central Alabama. During the Civil War, the hotel became a training center for Confederate cadets and a hospital for wounded soldiers.

“The owner was outside feeding her horses one day when she looked back in the direction of her home and saw a tall man dressed like Abe Lincoln, wearing a stovepipe hat, standing very still and looking at the house before walking away . . . she rushed back to the house and asked about the stranger. No one else had seen this figure,” Phillips explained.

On another occasion, a child visiting the house for a birthday celebration had taken the home’s elevator all the way down to the basement—which had served as a morgue in the days when structure was used as a hospital.

“The child came back upstairs crying after saying she had seen a woman in an old-fashioned dress go floating by.”

And in Shelby County near Columbiana, Phillips said, people still talk of a woman in a dark purple gown who can be seen floating above the Old Salem Cemetery. It is said the spirit of Elizabeth Cunningham is unhappy over her mistreatment and that of her infant son after their deaths, their carefully embalmed corpses desecrated by Union troops searching for valuables.

“After her mausoleum was plundered by the troops, Cunningham had their remains buried underground with heavy slabs topping their graves. He wasn’t taking any chances,” Phillips said. “I visited that cemetery and tried to take a photo of her grave site . . . I had a freshly charged battery in my camera . . . the camera would not work then or the rest of that day.”

In the days of the side wheel steamboats, issues with boilers and other mishaps could lead to disastrous fires, Phillips said.

“The story of the steamboat Eliza Battle that traveled the Tombigbee  is told in one of Kathryn Windham Tucker’s books about Alabama ghosts . . . the steamboat was destroyed by fire on her first voyage of the season in 1858.”

It proved to be the worst disaster in maritime history on the Tombigbee, with an estimated 33 killed out of 60 passengers and 45 crew members.

“There have been numerous people over the years who have claimed to see a phantom steamboat on fire, proceeding down the Tombigbee,” Phillips said.

The avid historian also shared bits of vampire lore, personal tales of the supernatural and stories of buried treasure still to be unearthed. And while this metal detector enthusiast has yet to find a horde of gold, he has discovered antique coins, bottles and buttons that date back to the Civil War era in his explorations—several of which he brought along to share with audience members.