All afternoon we'd caught glimpses of iron gates whose looping forms incorporated hearts, snakes or other fanciful designs. Made by blacksmith Philip Simmons (winner of a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts), they adorn the city's visitors center, churchyards and the private homes of those who can pay the going price of up to $40,000. Here in "the 'hood," we were going to be treated to a chat with Simmons, now in his nineties.
We trooped into the modest house, and Simmons seemed pleased to shake hands, particularly with youngsters. "Is he rich?" one kid asked the guide. Simmons responded that he was richer than the president, because "you can still come visit me in my little white house!"
The Gullah Tour visits the remnants of an African American graveyard.
(Photos Gayle Keck)
Gullah Tours, 843-763-7551, www.gullahtours.com. Two-hour bus tours are offered Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., and Saturdays, 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.; cost is $18. Reservations requested. Tours leave from Gallery Chuma, 43 John St., near the visitors center.
"What's the most important thing you need for ghosts?" guide Laurens Smith asked our assembled group of 15 or so. After a few worthy guesses from the kids, Smith let us off the hook: "Dead people!" And, with its long and checkered history, Charleston is apparently ripe for ghosts.
I'd chosen "The Ghosts of Charleston" from among many spirited offerings -- the city may be more haunted by ghost tours than by ghosts -- because it was based on a book I'd thumbed through in local shops.
The walking tour turned out to be a series of ghost stories, unraveled at several locations in the city's historic district. In the decidedly unsinister Waterfront Park where the group assembled, Smith, a 15th-generation Charlestonian, regaled us with tales of the "Headless Torso" and "Gentleman Ghost" that haunt the Battery Carriage House Inn, a lodging near the harbor. While the Torso is fearsome, the Gentleman apparently just likes to snuggle with women. Rooms 8 and 10, where the specters hang out, are wildly popular and must be booked well in advance, Smith said.
At the Old Exchange building, as he deftly maneuvered us around a competing ghost tour, Smith told us the story of Issac Hayne. During the American Revolution, Hayne was sentenced to death by the British for treason. He awaited death in the Old Exchange prison. After Hayne was executed, his footsteps and voice were heard in the night.
The stories flowed as twilight gathered and gaslights threw spooky shadows: a girl who escaped a boarding school to marry a northerner from New York and the school mistress who couldn't forgive herself for letting it happen. A photo of an apparition snapped in the St. Philip's Church graveyard at a mother's grave on the anniversary of her child's death. "Three women who touched the negative of this photo miscarried," Smith solemnly told us.
Our final stop was Poogan's Porch restaurant, former home of a schoolteacher who periodically shows up at the end of the evening and requests to be seated. Amused by Charleston's booming ghost industry, I asked Smith if he'd ever spotted one. "No," he admitted, flashing a wistful smile.
"The Ghosts of Charleston," 843-723-1670, www.tourcharleston.com. 75-minute walking tours are offered daily at 5, 7:30 and 9:30 p.m.; cost is $15. Reservations required. Tours depart from the circular fountain at Waterfront Park, at the end of Vendue Range.
For more information about visiting Charleston: Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-774-0006, www.charlestoncvb.com.