I’ve been curious about ghosts, spirits, and other weird phenomena since I was a little girl. My brother and I were just kids when we spent weekends with my grandmother in her Milwaukee apartment. There we were subjected to hours-long Brewers games on her small kitchen television, which were then followed by episodes of Twilight Zone and Tales From the Darkside. Those shows scared the crap of out me but they’re probably why I believe in things from the otherworld. Grandma most certainly did. I learned that she claimed to have seen the bust of JFK at the foot of her bed the evening before he was assassinated.
It is something I am very mindful of when I travel into a city with a violent past, or even just a colorful past, that they might be there. I don’t know how I would react if I happened upon a ghost, but I imagine it would be similar to how I behave when I come across a large snake in the woods: Stand still, forget to breathe, and wait for it to continue showing no interest in me whatsoever before running away and telling all my friends about it. I am of the mind, though, that I want to go to them. I don’t want them coming to me. I must mentally prepare for any slight possibility of a ghostly encounter.
Here’s something most people do not know about me, not even my family: I hope to one day visit Gettysburg or Antietam and see the spirits of Civil War soldiers wandering the battlefield. I hear it happens. I want it to happen to me (but not by surprise, though, because I’m a straight-up scaredy pants). Although Grandma Charlotte can come visit me anytime, no invitation required.
One of my favorite “haunted” places to visit is Savannah, Georgia. If spirits and ghosts aren’t your cup of tea, Savannah has plenty more to offer. Centuries of plantation history, southern architecture, gothic lore – it’s all here. The giant oak trees, some even older than the city itself, are all dressed up in Spanish moss.
Which is why Wright Square such an oddity. There is no Spanish moss here (see photos below), supposedly because it is haunted by the ghost of Alice Riley. She was an Irish immigrant paying back her passage fare through indentured servitude. She was also the first woman to be executed in the state of Georgia. Legend tells us that Alice was treated cruelly by her master, ending up pregnant and naturally fed up with the abuse. She and another indentured servant, supposedly her husband, drowned her boss in a bathtub and fled the city in the hopes of finding some kind of freedom. They were both captured. Her accomplice was hanged first as a horrified Alice watched. She, however, was not hanged until right after she had given birth to the child, who died nearly two months later.
Interestingly, not much information can be found on Alice Riley, but in the process of looking I found out about the execution of another woman by the state of Georgia. Lena Baker’s crime sounds eerily similar to Alice’s, complete with the same kind of physical abuse, forced sexual relations (toward the end of a once-consensual arrangement), and overall master-and-servant mindset.
Lena was a black woman working for a white man in the 1940s. After years of suffering at the hands of her boss, she, too, killed him. Whereas Alice was the first woman to be executed by the state, Lena was the first woman to be executed by the state’s electric chair. To this date, she is the only woman to have done so.
The difference is this: Alice claimed innocence while Lena confessed. Alice’s story is nearly forgotten, except during ghost tours. Lena’s was front page news again only years ago. It turns out the state of Georgia recently granted Lena a pardon, albeit sixty years too late. It was decided that her sentence should have been based on a lesser charge. But, hey, it’s the Deep South. It’s Georgia. It’s a story about a white man who died at the hands of a black woman. They were separated in life by nearly two hundred years, but each woman knew her place in the world – servitude. After digging deeper into both cases, I just found it immensely satisfying to see that both women had so much in common, save for one tiny thing: the color of their skin.
I can’t find anything about a ghost belonging to Lena Baker. I’m not sure why – maybe because she has been publicly cleared? – but I’m slightly disappointed by such a non-discovery. Some people need to be haunted by this kind of thing.