What do the Savannah Theatre, the Telfair Mansion and the Owens-Thomas House have in common, aside from the facts that they all call Savannah “home” and that they are believed to be haunted? Well, they all were built by British architect William Jay. It seems that Mr. Jay's artistic ability to build these wonderful structures, possess a transcending quality that continues to capture the eyes of the dead, and living as well.
Mr. Jay built the Owens-Thomas House in the year 1819, and is considered to be one of the most intriguing houses in Savannah today. Currently, the historic house is operated by the Telfair Museums, and has been designated a National Historic Landmark since 1976 (the Bicentennial). The house has maintained its English Regency style, with furnishings and art from the period, with some of the pieces originating from the Owens family.
The Owens-Thomas House is considered to be the pinnacle of old Savannah, and with its long storied past, it is easy to see why the ghosts of its former guests and residents continue to roam the property.
The Owens-Thomas House at 124 Abercorn Street, on Oglethorpe Square, has a story that goes all the way back to the year of 1816, the year its ground was broken. William Jay (just twenty-four at the time) actually began drawing the plans for the house while still in England, sending the information regarding his work to the foreman (bringing England's Regency Era style to Georgia). Jay would arrive in Savannah not long after the foundation had been laid. And, in a few short years (1819), the house was completed.
The house was originally known as the Richardson House, after the first owner, cotton merchant and banker Richard Richardson, who had come to Savannah by way of New Orleans. Richard’s wife Frances was closely tied to the architect William Jay, as her brother was married to Jay’s sister, Anne.
In the following years, Richardson (the banker) lost most of his fortune, and was forced to sell the house. Not long after the sell, the Bank of the United States possessed the house. Later, the property was run by Mrs. Mary Maxwell as a lodging house. During this time, one of the more famous guests of the house was Marquis de Lafayette (a Revolutionary War hero). One evening, Marquis de Lafayette stood from the house’s south cast-iron balcony, overlooking an adoring crowd. He then lifted their spirits even higher ("and higher" Jackie Wilson) with an inspiring speech addressed to all of the people of Savannah.
In 1830, the house was sold to attorney/politician George Welshman Owens for ten thousand dollars. The Savannah born Owens went to the University of Cambridge (You know, the one in England), so, this could explain why he was drawn to the Regency style house. After studying law in London, he returned home to his Savannah, where he started his own practice.
Five years after buying the house, Owens (who had been the Mayor of Savannah) was elected to the United States Congress in the year 1835. In four years (1839), Owens' political career came to an end, and thus he resumed practicing law in Savannah, until his death on March 2nd, 1856. The house eventually went to Margaret Thomas, the granddaughter of Owens. Upon her death, she bequeathed the house to the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1951.
Margaret never married, and had no children with whom she could leave the house. Constantly she worried that after her death, the vultures would swoop in and pick her beloved home apart. So, she left it to the Telfair Academy, with the intention of it becoming a museum. The only condition Miss Margaret had was that the museum be named after both her grandfather and father respectively.
The National Historic Landmark (designated in 1976), the Owens-Thomas House, now runs as a museum, with furnishing and antiques from 1750-1830 on full display. The house offers its visitors a look into the past of old Savannah.
The Owens-Thomas House also has one of the oldest urban slave quarters still intact, which offers visitors a chance to understand that while this house is majestic, it has seen its fair share of horrors. None, as shameful as the act of enslaving one's fellow man.
The slave quarters have virtually remained untouched in its two hundred years of existence. When you enter the quarters, you’ll find artifacts and other relics that were used by slaves. And, when you look up to ceiling, you’ll see that it is painted a water blue, a color called “Haint Blue.”
It is believed that the slaves painted the ceiling this color to ward off evil spirits, and to keep other restless ghosts (who refuse to move on) from entering their world. These spirits are referred to as “haints.”
The ceiling was painted a shade of blue similar to the color of water, for it was believed that haints could not cross over water and so restless spirits always steered clear of anything resembling the color of water.
In the Owens-Thomas House’s long history, it has seen just about it all. Slavery, the fire of 1820, the Civil War, and Yellow Fever are just some of the tragedies that have been witnessed. It's conceivable that these events are what make Savannah one of the most haunted cities in the American South. And, the Owens-Thomas House might just be one of the more restless houses in this ghost-ridden city.
It has been long said that the Owens-Thomas House is a place of many secrets and hauntings. Spirits here linger about, unable to crossover, for whatever their reason might be. These lost souls roam throughout the halls and rooms of this property they call home. One of the most frequently spotted spirits is a well built man with jet black hair, dressed in 1830s garb. This man apparently likes to stand in the front parlor room, watching the guests as they venture around the house. Once tired, he simply vanishes, walking through a wall.
And, of course you can't truly be a haunted house until there are reports of items being moved and even tossed around, from room to room. In particular the dining room, where the chairs are occasionally moved out from its table by an unseen presence. The staff has also heard phantom footsteps, and unexplained noises emanating from empty rooms. Yes, there seems to be a surprise that awaits every visitor in each of the rooms at the Owens-Thomas House. This is especially so in the upper floors, where shadowy figures have been known to appear.
A former maid at the Owens-Thomas House reportedly had a few run-ins with a ghost. One night, the maid went through the dining room, to make sure everything was in order as it should be. She then locked up, and left for the night.
Upon her return the following morning, she entered into the dining room. She was surprised to find one of the tables in disarray, with one of the chairs even pulled out. She claimed it was as if someone had just eaten a meal, and didn’t bother to pick up after themself (ghost slob).
Perhaps even more infamous than the ghost of the man from the 1830s is the Lady in Gray. This particular “Lady in Gray” is believed to be the spirit of Margaret Thomas. Miss Margaret's ghost has been spotted at night, strolling around the garden, in which she spent so much of her living years. She has been described as wearing a large hat and a gray shawl.
Rumor also has it that the very bed in which Margaret died is still located in the house. Perhaps her spirit is tied to the bed, allowing her soul the ability to wander around her old home in the afterlife...
Before the house became a museum, Miss Margaret rented the upstairs out. On one occasion, a ghost made his presence known to a couple of gentlemen who were visiting their friend who lived upstairs. The actual tenant did not see the ghost himself, but his two friends insisted that they did. They claimed to see a ghostly man wearing "a riding coat and a shirt with ruffles." The presence stood in the doorway for a short time, before walking through the wall into another room.
The tenant's friends were visibly shaken, and were initially at a lost for words after their paranormal encounter. They later asked their friend (the tenant) if he ever had experienced any paranormal activity at the house. Their friend replied that he was scared to go downstairs at night, but had yet to encounter the man in the riding coat or spectral beings.
Another account of the ghost in the riding coat comes from James “Jim” Arthur Williams. Williams, an antique dealer and controversial figure from Savannah, was immortalized in John Berendt’s novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and was portrayed by Kevin Spacey in the film adaptation of the book, which was directed by Clint Eastwood.
Williams claimed to have had an encounter at the Owens-Thomas House in the 1960s. Williams, his business partner and a friend (who rented a room upstairs) were having a drink in the front room of the house. Williams and his business partner were sitting in chairs across from their friend, who was sitting on a couch.
The trio had been deep into conversation for well over an hour when Mr. Williams’ business partner, made note of a man who had mysteriously appeared in the back of the room, behind the friend who was seated on the couch. Williams also became aware of the man; he described this ghostly man as wearing a riding coat and boots, with his riding crop still in hand.
The ghost paced around the room as if he were impatiently awaiting someone’s arrival. He walked about for around ten minutes or so. The ghost, for reasons unknown, then passed through the couch and walked toward Williams. The ghost neared Williams so closely, that he was able tell the color of the ghost’s eyes (they were blue), and see the beads of sweat gathering on the ghost’s brow.
The business partner was stunned by this as he watched Williams in a state of confusion. The ghost then vanished before their eyes. Williams later poked fun of the encounter, saying that only in Savannah would a ghost sweat. Just a week after that night, Williams’ friend had another experience with the ghost, and thus promptly decided to move out of the Owens-Thomas House.
One ghostly haunt at the Owens-Thomas House was witnessed by one of the museum's tour guides, Missy Brandt. She once shared the following story of her interesting encounter. It was late one evening, and she was giving a tour, when she heard the very clear sound of someone striking a match. Soon she could then smell the distinct aroma of tobacco burning. Missy then looked around her group, but no one was smoking.
She then asked her group, "does anyone else smell smoke?
One of the guests responded, "Yes, I saw a match flare up behind you, and smoke puffing out of thin air."
This was confirmed by a few of the others in the group. They had all heard the strike of the match, followed by a phantom flame. They then exclaimed how they could see the smoke disappear, just as soon as Missy had asked her before mentioned question.
Obviously, there are no shortage of creepy stories at the Owens-Thomas House. Any members of the staff will surely share with you a few spine-tingling tales. Maybe some that they have personally experienced, and others might just be retellings of encounters that a visitor may have had.
One of these legends told by the staff, is that late on certain nights, someone can take a picture of the house while on a tour. Then as the trip wraps up, they may revisit their pictures and discover orbs in the background. You never know when you might just capture one of the Owens-Thomas’ ghostly presences. For that, we are on their time, not the other way around. The ghosts could care less about which tour is happening, they appear whenever they feel like it (they're a bunch of divas).
One of these visitors had a rather strange experience during a Thanksgiving trip. In one photo she had taken, she claims you could see "an over sized face in the window". And, in her second picture, it appeared that there were a couple of orbs around the historic Owens-Thomas House. In the third photo, it seems to show quarters suspiciously falling from the sky.
And, in her last photograph taken, it supposedly shows a ghostly blond girl with the reflection of the flash in her eyes. She was wearing a tattered blue dress, and standing next to an unaware visitor, who was also on the tour.
The house was said to have been a home for all sorts of occupants in its past, so it's unclear who this little girl in the blues dress might have been.
The Owens-Thomas House is located at 124 Abercorn Street (Savannah, Georgia), and is considered one of the country's finest examples of English Regency architecture (if you don’t believe me, read any article ever written about the house and you’ll discover the same line). The historic house (now museum) holds much of the Telfair Academy art collection. The property also includes a gallery, gift shop and African-American items on loan from the Acacia Collection.
But remember, if you visit the Owens-Thomas House you never know what sort of paranormal experience you may have. Perhaps, a portrait will seemingly follow you, or maybe you’ll hear the wonderful music from a phantom pianist.
Interested in learning more, please consider taking one of our ghost tours.