The Ghosts of the Dock Street Theatre

In one of the oldest Theatres in America, the ghosts still haunt the living

The Dock Street Theatre, interestingly in not located on Dock Street, but on Church Street. Another quirky fact about the theatre is that at one time it was actually a hotel, and is now the last surviving Antebellum “hotel.”

The building, originally known as Planter’s Hotel, was constructed in 1809, by Mr. & Mrs. Alexander Calder. Their endeavor was really more of a renovation of a cluster of buildings already located onsite.

The name of the hotel was an homage to its guests, as most of the people who stayed at the Planter’s were actually planters. During the horse racing season, these planters from the midlands of South Carolina would journey into city to catch the races.

After playing the ponies, many of the planters were too tired to trek back home, or were otherwise unable to travel the distance. I’ll leave all of the possible reasons up to your imagination.

By the 1930s, Planter’s Hotel was gone, and the building in desperate need of repairs. The city stepped in, and begin the process of restoring the structure, as a joint project with the WPA (Works Progress Administration).

As construction began, an additional structure was added behind the hotel, featuring both a stage and an auditorium. As for the theatre’s name, it was taken from a theatre from the 1730s, that once stood on Dock Street (now Queen Street). The original Dock Street Theatre, was the city’s first ever theatre.

For many Charlestonians, the Dock Street Theatre is a symbol of the city, and its people’s enduring desire for life. The performances put on at the theatre are produced by the Charleston Stage Company, the largest theatre company in the State of South Carolina.

The Dock Street Theatre is more than historic, it is also one of the most haunted buildings in all of Charleston. Those who have passed by the theatre at night have seen the ghosts of lost souls gazing out from the windows.

The History of the Dock Street Theatre

The construction of the original Dock Street is believed to have commencend in the year of 1735, with the grand opening taking place on the 12th of February in the year of 1736. It’s location was not far from the current address of the theatre.

The theatre first incarnation was short lived, the exact cause of its demise is not clear, but most believe that it burned down in the Charleston Fire of 1740.

While the Dock Street burned down, it was replaced with another theatre, which remained opened for over 40 years, when it closed down in the 1780s. It was shut down in large part due to the construction of a new and more grand theatre, just around the corner.

The Planter’s Hotel

Nearly 30 years later in 1809, Planter’s Hotel was created by the Calders. The building would go through another round of renovations just a little over 25 years later in 1835. It was during this renovation the building received its enduring style, elements of which can still be seen now at the Dock Street Theatre.

After the work of 1835 had been completed, the Planter’s Hotel became known as one the preeminent hotels in all of Charleston.

Booth at the Planter’s

During the glory days of the Planter’s Hotel, it was known to play host to theatre groups. One of the actors of these theatre troupes has a name that may sound a little familiar, Junius Brutus Booth.

This Booth was the father of ole John Wilkes Booth. One popular story told about the elder Booth, occurred during his stay at the Planter’s Hotel (around 1838). The events of the story unfolded one night after a performance, when for unknown reasons Booth became enraged, and attack the hotel’s manager, almost killing the man. I guess theatre folks are temperamental.

The actors that grace the Dock Street Theatre today are a bit better behave. Well, at least they have not tried to kill anyone. Well, at least none that I am aware of…

The Fall of the Planter’s Hotel

This successful time period would be seceded by a calamity of unfortunate events. First the Civil War, okay, little to nothing went unschathed during the war, but this was especially so for any place in the south, and Charlestown was no exception.

After the war, the once luxurious hotel became a victim of the city’s strongly economy. The neglected hotel faced further damaged as a result of the devastating 1886 Charleston earthquake.

The needs of the building had become too great for any one man in Charleston to take on. And, without the slightest bit of hope, the people of Charleston were forced to turn a blind eye to the once great hotel, as it was left to decay, to become another forgotten relic from the antebellum era.

Rebirth

The building that housed the Planter’s Hotel was left abandoned for far too long, nearly 50 years. But, things were beginning to look up for the once majestic property, as there were plans on the way.

Those plans came about in the mid-1930s, when the Works Progress Administration, an agency established during the Great Depression to create work for the unemployed, announced their intentions to do just that for the people of Charleston. The work—to renovate the condemned structure formerly known as Planter’s Hotel.

The first step, in restoring not just the building but Charleston’s economy was for the city to hire new workers for the massive undertaking. The following step, was to renovate the old hotel back to its original glory.

While, the outside of the building was brought back to life, back to the old swinging days of the 1830s and 40s, the building was not to become a hotel again. No, the building was being reborn, reborn into a theatre. And, bearing Charleston’s history in mind, the name of its first theatre was revived, The Dock Street Theatre was alive once again.

In Recent Years

The theatre remained open until the year of 2007 when the building was forced to close temporarily for greatly needed renovations. Afterall it had been 70 plus years since the WPA initiative revived the building.

Three short years and 19 millions dollars later, on March 18, 2010, the Dock Street Theatre held its grand reopening to the delight of all Charlestonians.

Today, the historic theatre continues to serve as a cultural touchstone for the city, as it hosts a full season of performances produced by the Charleston Stage Company. In addition to the amazing plays put on at Dock Street, you can catch some of your favorite musical acts at the theatre year round.

The Ghost of the Dock Street Theatre

With nearly 350 years of history under its belt, the City of Charleston lays host to countless ghosts. Some of the city’s most infamous lost souls can be found at the historic Dock Street Theatre.

Guests of the theatre have claimed to see spirits roaming about, sightings of ghostly shadows in the rafters, and apparitions on the stage. Many are left to wonder just who these ghosts were. Were they failed actors? Were they long time admirers of the theatre? Or, is it possible that something more tragic occurred at the building?

While there have been numerous sightings throughout the building’s long history, there are two particular spirits that have been seen more than any of the others.

The Ghost of Junius Booth

One of these two specters is believed to be Junius Brutus Booth the father of the infamous presidential assassin. No one is quite sure why his ghost is haunting the Dock Street Theatre (formerly Planter’s Hotel), as he was not even in Charleston at the time of his passing, he was miles away in Louisville, Kentucky.

And, aside from performing at the former hotel with his theatre troupe, and the rumor that he tried the to kill the manager of the Planter’s Hotel, he doesn’t really have any strong ties to the building. Nothing to warrant his haunting of the building.

But, logic and facts aside, it is possible that the ghost of Junius Booth is indeed haunting the theatre. However, it is more plausible that it is the ghost of another lost soul. Maybe another actor, unwilling to leave the spotlight of the stage.

The Ghost of Nettie

The most frequently spotted ghost at Dock Street Theatre is Nettie. Some claim that her full name was Nettie Dickerson. While others believe she was nameless, and thusly dubbed Nettie by the locals.

Nettie lived in Charleston during the 1800s, and could usually be found at the Planter’s Hotel. She was not a guest nor a member of the staff at the Planter’s Hotel per se. You see, Nettie was a bit of a freelancer, her occupation? Well, it was the world’s oldest profession, she was a prostitute.

The ghost of Nettie can be seen gliding around aimless throughout the Dock Street Theatre. Some of those who have caught a glimpse of Nettie, claim that she wore a tattered yet vibrantly colored, red dress.

But, how did Nettie come to haunt the Dock Street Theatre?

The Story of Nettie

During the Planter’s heyday, the hotel was a place where the wealthy men of Charleston would congregate. It was a place where they were free to drink copious amounts of alcohol, gamble away a small fortune, and engage in extramarital affairs with the local prostitutes.

One of these ladies of the night was the twenty five-year-old, Nettie. It’s believed that young Nettie was a country girl, who dreamed of the city life, and arrived in Charleston sometime in the early 1840s.

Nettie’s reasons for coming to Charleston was to find love and excitement. But unfortunately for Nettie she lived in era when 25 was considered well passed the marrying age. The wealthy men of Charleston were looking for brides who were still in their teens, they were not interested in marrying someone considered to be a spinster.

Aside from Nettie’s age, her social status was also a factor. Back in the day, it was very uncommon for people to marry beneath their class, this was especially so in Charleston. A stigma that actually continues in some social circles in the city today,

And, while many of the men of Charleston were taken with Nettie’s beauty, they were only interested in lust not love. Her dreams of a better life, dreams of happiness and love now crushed, Nettie began looking for work.

Nettie became a clerk at St. Phillip’s Episcopal Church. She took to the job well, and got along with the priest. But, nonetheless, she felt as she did not belong, it was impossible for her to compete, and knew she would never truly be accepted into Charleston’s high society.

The Fall of Nettie

Nettie grew tired of trying to get ahead in Charleston, and quit her job despite the priest’s efforts to sway her from doing so, begging her not to lose heart. But, it was too late, she had.

With the money she was able to save from her job at the church, she went to one of the most upscale stores in Charleston, and bought the most expensive dress they had. A gorgeous red dress, that would catch the eye of any man. And, With her new dress she entered the Planter’s Hotel with this very intent.

With her new mindset, looks and red dress, she adapted well to her new profession. Still bitter at the society that refused to welcome her, she would continue to go to church every Sunday. And, whenever one of the women (many of whom’s husbands were Nettie’s customers) would cast aspersions or give her an ugly look, she would audaciously confront said women and her husband.

As you can imagine, Nettie’s lack of discretion cost her many of her customers, and quickly became penniless. Distraught, she snapped, Nettie went out onto the second floor balcony of the Planter’s, while in her red dress, and stayed out there despite the brewing storm. She began shouting out disparaging remarks against Charleston’s high society, even as the storm intensified.

The priest who still cared for Nettie rushed out into the street, and tried to reason with her. It is said that she then hollered down to him, “You can’t save me!” And, as fate would have it, a bolt of lightning struck Nettie dead.

While the Planter’s Hotel is long gone, Nettie’s spirit can still be seen at the Dock Street Theatre, red dress and all.

Visiting Charleston anytime soon?

If you're looking for the perfect way to learn more about Charleston's most haunted locations, check out one of our Charleston Ghost Tours. We look forward to showing you around our beautifully haunted city.

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Visiting the Dock Street Theatre

The beautifully restored Dock Street Theatre is located at 135 Church Street, and offers an intimate setting for those wishing to see a memorable play or catch one of their favorite singers or bands.

To learn about the productions and concerts offered year round at the Dock Street Theatre, presented by the Charleston Stage Company, check out their website.