Do you believe in ghosts? All I know is I’ve blown through “The Haunting of Hill House” on Netflix, and I’m hungry for more. Fortunately, Birmingham offers haunted history around every corner. Come with me on a ghostly tour, then tell me if you would go to these places alone in the dark. (I included a handy map for you at the end.)
We think of cemeteries as sacred places, like historic Oak Hill Cemetery in Birmingham. But in our city’s first 80 years or so, that wasn’t necessarily the case. How sure are you, really, that you don’t live above one?
“Jefferson County has between 480 and 500 cemeteries, and many of them are lost,” said Edward Wolfgang Poe, owner of Birmingham Historic Touring Company, who leads ghost walks and researches lost cemeteries. “There’s about 20 of them that literally nobody knows where they are at all.”
Would you guess the west parking lot of Legion Field covers a pioneer cemetery of 315 graves? (Poe discovered this tidbit in a historical log.)
Then there’s the Birmingham Botanical Gardens and Birmingham Zoo. They, along with neighborhood homes, cover the city’s original paupers cemetery. Poe once had a guest on his tour who lived in the area who reported digging up a skeleton in his basement during home renovations.
Of course, undisturbed sacred ground does not equal the deceased resting peacefully.
Catherine Erswell was the wife of Edward Erswell, one of Birmingham’s earliest businessmen. Edward came to the city as a cabinet maker in 1872, but a cholera epidemic soon made him a successful coffin builder and undertaker, too.
“Mrs. Erswell wanted to be buried in the fashionable cemetery of Elmwood,” Poe said. Alas, Mr. Erswell, who passed before her, already had a vault in Oak Hill Cemetery. “You can hear whispers and muttering coming out of that tomb late at night. People think it’s Mrs. Erswell complaining to Mr. Erswell for burying her in the wrong place.”
The Mermaid of East Lake
Oak Hill Cemetery is also the final resting place of the victims of early Birmingham’s most notorious murders: Emma Hawes and her daughters May and Irene, who met their unnatural deaths in December 1888.
The murderer? Richard Hawes, husband, father and railway engineer. Apparently, he was keen to start anew with a new wife. Young May’s body was found first in East Lake.
The bodies of her mother and sister were discovered later in Lakeview, in a body of water that was later drained to make way for the Highland Park golf course in Birmingham.
To this day, young May’s spirit haunts East Lake. Visitors have witnessed her apparition appear and slip into the lake, seen her caressing the lake’s geese and heard her voice calling for her mother and sister.
Hank Williams Sr., Live at the Redmont…Forever
The legendary country singer/songwriter Hank Williams Sr. died at age 29 on New Year’s Day 1953, en route from Montgomery to West Virginia. The culprit was alcohol, pain medication and heart failure.
On that fateful trip, the last hotel he spent the night in was none other than The Redmont Hotel in Birmingham. Some believe his spirit returned there to stay.
According to Poe, guests of The Redmont have reported hearing a guitar strumming portions of Williams’ songs and a voice uttering his nickname, “Old Hank.”
The Knocker of Tutwiler
For years, hotel guests staying on the sixth floor of The Tutwiler Hotel have reported knocking at their doors in the wee hours, but no one is ever there. Or, they complain of rowdy children next door, when that room is empty. Or, an out-of-control air conditioner renders a room freezing. Who is the culprit?
First, a bit of history. The Tutwiler we know today is the second Birmingham hotel of that name. The 1914 original was demolished in 1974. The 1913 Ridgely Apartments became the second Tutwiler Hotel in 1986. Edward Tutwiler helped foot the bill for both early 20th-century structures.
While some sources say the ghostly knocker is old Tutwiler himself, others say it’s a young girl.
“I can confirm there is a little girl’s spirit who haunts several floors there,” said Kim Johnston, founder of SCARe, Spirit Communications and Research of Alabama, who has investigated The Tutwiler. “We caught audio of a little girl saying ‘knock, knock’ in a sweet little voice.”
Poe believes the spirit comes from the Ridgely Apartments era.
“In World War I, a family lived on the sixth floor—a father, mother and little girl,” Poe said. “The father was a soldier and killed in battle. Shortly after, the mother died of tuberculosis. That left the little girl an orphan.”
It’s possible the child ended up in a nearby orphanage, which burned down soon after. If she died in that fire, perhaps she returned home.
“Staff have seen on security cameras a little girl in a long dress and pigtails skipping up and down the halls on the sixth floor,” Poe said. “They see people walk by without acknowledging her. Some have seen her turn and walk into a room without opening a door.”
Pencils and Chesterfields
If you are in the elevator of Linn-Henley Research Library downtown and catch a whiff of Chesterfield cigarettes, you might be in the presence of Fant Thornley, director of the Birmingham Public Library from 1953 to his death in 1970. He also seems to have a particular fondness for the third floor.
Never fear. By all accounts Thornley should be a benevolent ghost, according to author Alan Brown in his book “Haunted Birmingham.” Thornley loved the building, which was the main library branch during his tenure. He oversaw the construction of multiple new branches and integrated the city’s library system in 1963.
Another telltale sign of Thornley’s presence, according to Poe, is the rolling pencil. He’s personally experienced it with the short pencils available in the reading room on the first floor.
“You write and put your pencil down on the desk, and it rolls across the desk and stops. Then rolls back toward you, and stops,” Poe said. “Some people have watched their pencil turn around in circles, and one reported the pencil stood up on end like it was trying to write something.”
Nine Spirits of Homewood Library
Unlike Thornley, the ghosts of Homewood Library are unrelated to the library itself. The land used to be the site of a farmhouse. In the 1960s, the house was torn down to make way for the Church of Christ. In 1984, the church became the present-day library, after an extensive remodel. When you’re in the adult section of the library, you’re in the old sanctuary.
Almost as soon as Homewood Libary became a library, its haunted history began. If you are a patron, do not fear. But after hours….
Doors open or close, or are found unlocked after they’ve been locked and checked. Books and DVDs fly off shelves—and been caught by security footage, according to Johnston.
During the Birmingham Snowpocalypse of 2014, a librarian stuck overnight was awakened by the sound of a woman laughing hysterically. (And you thought your Snowpocalypse story was a horror.)
Once a crew of construction workers working on the library sprinkler system after hours were so frightened by the sight of floating equipment that they fled and called the police.
Johnston and SCARe co-founder Shane Busby have come to the Homewood Library multiple times to investigate.
“One of things we like to do is a mock sermon. We play some Church of Christ music and stop to see if there’s any kind of response. We did get an audible voice saying ‘Amen’ once,” Johnston said. Another time, several us heard a woman scream that we couldn’t explain.”
Though no one is sure who the spirits of Homewood Library are, there’s consensus on one point. Both SCARe and an unaffiliated medium have asked on separate occasions how many spirits reside there. The answer on both occasions was the same. Nine.
The Organist Who Stayed
The day after Christmas 1927, the Alabama Theatre opened to great fanfare. It was Birmingham’s crown jewel in the heyday of movie palaces. Beyond gilded ceilings, marble floors and luxe furnishing, the biggest treasure within was a Mighty Wurlizter organ.
Perhaps one of the theater’s early organists treasured it enough to stick around and protect it. Consider a possible sighting described by the late Cecil Whitmire in Brown’s “Haunted Birmingham.”
Whitmire played the organ at the Alabama Theatre from 1976 to 2007, and spearheaded the effort to preserve it. When the theater closed in 1981, he held performances to raise money for its upkeep. One day in 1986, as he and a singer rehearsed for a benefit concert, a shadowy figure crossed the stage in their line of sight.
Who turned the duet into a trio? After determining everyone else was in the auditorium at the time, Whitmire and the singer narrowed the suspects down to the ghost of Stanleigh Malotte, the theater’s house organist from 1936 to 1955. Perhaps Marlotte was happy to see the artists doing their part to save his beloved home.
Other eerie events at the Alabama Theatre include unexplained slamming doors and footsteps. Once, when an employee was checking sight lines in the auditorium for an upcoming show, an empty seat two chairs down lowered as if someone were sitting.
Now, A Choice
Dear reader, have I simply failed to send a chill down your spine? Then, I direct you SCARe’s recordings from paranormal investigations of Sloss Furnaces, a historic Birmingham landmark. Or, make plans for a truly frightful experience at Sloss Furnaces or Warehouse 31, or schedule a nighttime ghost walk with Poe.
On the other hand, if you are ready for a little Halloween-themed comic relief, here’s your ticket.
Amidst all the hullabaloo about Bird electric scooters, Birmingham native, Sidewalk Film Festival alum and Bham Now reader Adam Sutherland explored what would happen if Bird scooters had a more sinister objective, à la Alfred Hitchcock. Enjoy his short film.
Know of a Birmingham ghost story that I missed? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.