Beneath the large oaks that now dominate Wright Square, blood has been spilled and anguish has been felt since the founding of Savannah in 1733. Wright Square was one of the original four squares to be laid out in Savannah’s Historic District, but while the other three squares have a much tamer history, the same cannot be said for slice of land which is bracketed by E. York and E. State Streets. The first white burial ground was located at Wright Square. At the southwest corner of the square, extending underneath some of the buildings, is where the bodies of those first buried in Savannah rest—but not all of them are at peace. A common theme that you will find throughout Savannah hauntings is that buildings, and roadways were often built on top of burial grounds.
The area known as Percival Square was laid out in 1733, and was originally named after John, Lord Viscount Percival, Earl of Egmont, who played a large part in the founding of the colony of Georgia. Around the year of 1763, the square's name was changed to Wright Square in honor of Sir James Wright, the last Royal Governor of the Province of Georgia (1760-1782). The square has also been referred to as Post Office Square, Courthouse Square and Hanging Square. Since its early colonial days, Wright Square has been a gathering place for the public, where it became the location of the courthouse, monthly auctions, government bonds and, well, just about everything else that one could possibly want or need. Look no further, Wright Square could satisfy your every need and desire.
In 1739, The Yamacraw Chief, Tomo-Chi-Chi, who offered peace and cooperation with the early Georgia colonists, was buried in the center of the square, and the stone pyramid that the settlers built to honor Tomo-Chi-Chi was marked as Savannah’s first monument. Over 100 years later, following the death of William Washington Gordon (1796-1842), a prominent and well respected politician and businessman who was also the founder and president of the Central Railroad and Banking Company (and who brought great wealth to Savannah's economy) was given the honor of a memorial in Wright Square.
To make way for Gordon's new memorial, the city desecrated Tomo-Chi-Chi’s grave. They unceremoniously removed his remains, reportedly scattering his bones around the plot of land. Gordon's monument was designed by architects, Henry Van Brunt and Frank M. Howe, and was completed in 1883. Preservationists, knowing just how unacceptable this act was handled, created a new memorial for Tomo-Chi-Chi (the man responsible for Savannah's early safety and successes). This new monument was made of granite stone, and now stands at the southeast corner of Wright Square.
The ghost of Tomo-Chi-Chi allegedly still resides in Wright Square. If you visit his monument on the southeast corner of the square, and run around it three times while saying “Tomo-Chi-Chi," his ghost might actually appear.
In December of the year 1733, Alice Riley, her husband Richard White, and 38 other Irish servants barely survived the voyage to America, weeks on the turbulent sea had left them famished and nearly dead from starvation. All of them were famished, and nearly dead from starvation. Upon their arrival in Georgia, Alice and Richard were made to work for William Wise, who owned a cattle farm on Hutchinson Island, across the river from Savannah. By all accounts, Mr. Wise was a deviously tyrannical man and impossibly difficult to work for. Everyday, Wise would order a couple of his "servants" to actually bathe and groom him.
On March 1, 1734, William Wise was found dead in his house. His body was discovered on his bed, his head resting in a large bucket of water with a neckerchief tied securely around his neck. It was evident to all that he had been drowned, thus making him the first murder "victim" in Savannah. It was also discovered that Alice Riley and Richard White were missing from the farm, and suspicion quickly arose among the locals.
In the spring of 1734, Richard and Alice allegedly had just about all they could take and decided, much like Dylan, that they weren't "gonna work on Maggie's farm no more." So, on that faithful day of March 1st, while grooming Mr. "Maggie" Wise, Alice and Richard grabbed a bucket filled with water and held his head down, until Wise's body was rendered lifeless. The pair then fled the house, hiding out on the ironically named Isle of Hope. Eventually, Alice and Richard were caught by the lawman (I can just hear the Styx song "Renegade," playing in the background).
Alice Riley and Richard White were both sentenced to death for William Wise's murder. Richard White was the first Savannahian to be hanged, but just before the time came to hang Alice, it was discovered that she was pregnant with Mr. Wise's baby. Reportedly, she had been raped several times by the vile Mr. Wise. The magistrate decided to wait the remaining months of her pregnancy before hanging her. Shortly after her baby was born, her newborn was ripped from her arms. Without further delay, they strung her up on January 19, 1735, leaving the newborn baby an orphan.
Alice's body was left hanging from the gallows for three long days. To the very last moment of her execution, she maintained her innocence. Two weeks later, the nightmare continued: her baby, who she named James, passed away as well. Alice Riley and her baby were buried in a plot just off of Wright Square, today addressed as 9 W. York Street.
Were Alice and Richard victims of anti-Irish and Anti-Catholicism prejudice, and therefore framed for murder of the intolerable Mr. Wise's murder? It’s completely possible. Thomas Causton, the acting head magistrate, was known to often manipulate trial juries to gain verdicts agreeable with his biased superiority beliefs. It is also possible that Richard and Alice did killed Mr. Wise, but only to finally stop him from raping her and to end the cycle of his evil treachery.
After Alice Riley's death, there were an assortments of “spooky" and "devious" claims made about her. Most notably, that Riley practiced witchcraft, black magic or participated in some sort of occult activity. In reality, this was just a rumor launched by Anti-Catholic sentiment, by the Protestant settlers of the time. Another rumor is that Alice put a curse on the people of Savannah, as she was being hanged (Hocus Pocus style), and it is believed by some that the residual energy from the curse is the reason why Spanish Moss (which is common on most oaks in Savannah) does not grow on the trees found in Wright Square. One legend gives a more simple, and fitting explanation; it claims "that Spanish Moss will never grow where innocent blood has been spilled.”
Others have made claims that the ghost of Alice Riley will on occasion appear to mothers carrying their infants in their arms, and attempt to take their babies away from them. In contrast, most accounts have a different take, in that the soul of Riley roams the grounds searching for her baby boy, James, whom she birthed while awaiting execution. Her spirit screams and cries that she is looking for her son. But, before you can turn around and help her look for her baby, her apparition vanishes right from sight.
According to one report, "Very often tourists have called the Savannah police and reported a woman looking for her child in Wright Square. The officers that have been around for a while know it is Alice. Rookies get sent out to look for her as a joke. They never find anything of course. Even though she is often spotted in old fashioned clothing from her day, no one thinks anything of it because of the guided tours in the downtown Savannah area that often have their guides dress in historically accurate clothing."
Alice’s apparition has reportedly appeared to more people than any other ghost in the City of Savannah. Perhaps, if you're brave enough go to Wright Square in the early hours of the evening, you too might just catch a glimpse of her. She may even ask you to help her find her son. But, beware, I would be cautious in taking any newborn babies to Wright Square. You never know, Alice just might think it is James and attempt to steal the babe from your loving arms.
Alice Riley and Tomo-Chi-Chi are not the only two lost souls who inhabit the square.
A Savannahian tells of a racist spirit: “There was this ghost of a crazy old white lady in Wright Square. Oh she was crazy! She would walk around with a stick and take a swing at any African-American walking by."
Another person recalls a, well, more charming story: "I saw a man and woman huddled together walking in a rainstorm on the road, they were dressed in eighteenth-century clothes, I thought they were extras in a period film. When I went to looked at them again in the rear view mirror, they had vanished.” Maybe, it's Alice and her husband Richard White, finally free, free of Mr. Wise, free to be together.
In the spring of 2005, a Linda Davig and daughter visited Wright Square. "We were leaving the square when my daughter heard footsteps behind her. She stopped and turned around, but saw nothing. As I turned around and looked at her, she started to advance towards me when we heard the footsteps again. She stopped and turned around, but again, nothing was there. She continued walking. Then all of a sudden, something came up and hit her backpack. She turned around and took a picture anyway." Later, Linda described the photograph her daughter had taken, where “the orb was big and round. It was also white and transparent."
Local Savannah historian Rebecca Clark spoke in detail with Ghost City Tour's friend James Caskey about her ghostly encounter involving Wright Square for his book Haunted Savannah. The encounter occurred one night when she was driving by Wright Square, and picked up an unwanted ghostly hitchhiker. "I was returning to my car one evening, and as soon as I reached it, I knew something bizarre was happening. When I opened my car door, I felt a rush of icy cold air gush out, even though it was a steamy Savannah summer night and the car had been sitting for several hours."
She goes on, "I felt a presence so strong, I literally looked behind the front seat to see if someone was crouching there, out of view. Of course, there was no one there, at least not physically there. Anyway, I started the engine and began to drive, all the while expecting to see someone sitting in my back seat in the rear view mirror. I actually stopped at a red light and got out of my car for a moment. Now, this was not the best neighborhood, but I actually felt safer on the street than in my front seat of my car! I got back in when the light changed and made my way back home, but I never lost that feeling of being watched, and it felt unfriendly.
"Once I pulled into my driveway, I got out of that car as quick as I could, and locked up and went to bed. My golden retriever Bella ran to me on the bed, and after that strange experience I was glad to have the company. But, even Bella was acting odd, she hid under the covers, which is totally unlike her, and that's when it happened.... Down the hall in the study, every single electrical device went haywire. The television, the VCR, the stereo, the computer, everything turned on by itself and began to blare. I was so frightened. I've had numerous experiences with ghosts and whatnot, but nothing like this. All I could do was close the bedroom door. I wasn't going in there, and one look at Bella cowering under the covers told me she wasn't going in there, either. Whatever or whoever that strange spirit was, they had not only followed me home, they were now in my office study.
The next morning after the strange incidence in her car, Rebecca woke up and went to check on her office with hesitation dogging her every step. She found that everything was as it should be, with the lights turned off. To hear her tell the tale, it was as though the odd paranormal activity from the previous night had never occurred. But, as she related to Caskey, things changed a few days later when she had to return downtown: "As soon as I opened my car door, I figured out where the entity was: they were waiting in the car! I felt that same icy blast of air from my car even though it was another hot day. The whole ride downtown, I tried to talk to the spirit. Anyone, seeing me talking to no one, would just figure I was singing along to the radio, I guess. But, I basically told whoever it was that I was going back downtown, and they could just get out whenever they wanted."
"As soon as I got near Wright Square, I felt them leave, and that was the last experience I had with them."
On our Savannah Ghost Tours, we talk about how crime and punishment was dealt out in early Savannah. And, of course, you will hear the true story of Alice Riley, the first woman to be sentenced to death in Savannah.
Today, Wright Square is one of the most beautiful squares in all of Savannah. Bordered by courthouses and other historic buildings, Wright Square is sure to grab your interest and your thoughts. You can almost imagine the hangings or the burials that took place in Wright Square while standing there.
If you would like to visit Wright Square or one of our Savannah Ghost Tours please give us a call at 888-859-5375.