The Gray Man of Pawleys Island
The Great Storm of 1822 wrought unprecedented damage to the Myrtle Beach area when wind and waves pounded the coastline two centuries ago. In addition to the devastation, the origin of one of the area’s most popular ghost stories came to be, The Gray Man of Pawleys Island.
His popularity stems from the protection he is said to provide to the property left behind when a family evacuates from a powerful storm. He is claimed to be seen prior to only the worst of hurricanes. The legend is that, if you do see him, you are to heed his warning to leave and your home will be virtually undamaged when you return.
The story has been passed down since 1822, when the Gray Man was first reported to have appeared. He is said to be a fiancé who was killed in a freak accident en route to be reunited with his lady love after a two-year separation during which he was studying in Europe. Her family was spending the summer and fall on Pawleys Island to avoid malarial mosquitoes that were prevalent on their inland plantation.
When the young man’s servant came to the girl and her family to convey the tragic news, she was inconsolable. Eventually, she began taking walks on the beach at Pawleys Island in the late afternoon and one day saw a man, dressed in gray, whom she recognized as her dead lover. As she ran to him, he disappeared, but warned her that night in a dream of a terrific storm.
When she told her family the next morning about what (or whom) she saw on the beach the day before, they thought that she was losing her mind and packed up that day to seek medical attention down in Charleston. Soon afterwards, Pawleys Island was devastated by the 1822 storm, destroying all that was there except for the girl’s home. People have been telling that story, and on occasion benefitting from it, ever since.
Sometimes in a community, maybe even where you grew up, there will be a local superstition associated with a ghost, a witch or other scary being, and if you follow a certain ritual, you can conjure it. If you grew up around here, you would have heard stories all of your life about people who go to the graveyard of All Saints Church in Pawleys Island, place a ring on a stone slab of a grave marker that bears only the one name, Alice, and then walk thirteen times backwards around the grave believing that they’ll see her ghost. I grew up with the legend that Alice Belin Flagg returns to find her lost engagement ring.
In 1849, Alice, was a beautiful 16-year-old girl whose home was called The Hermitage, located on the water in Murrells Inlet where she lived with her elder brother, Allard, and their widowed mother. She was a student at a prestigious girls’ school in Charleston. If you have been on a tour there, you may have seen it at 32 Legare Street as it is now a private residence known as the Sword Gate House because of its striking iron gate with a sword motif.
During this time of her life, Alice fell in love. But the gentleman who had won her heart didn’t have the social status worthy of her family.
Regardless of their disapproval, the couple secretly got engaged and Alice wore the ring he gave her on a ribbon around her neck. She was elated. Then, tragically, she contracted a terrible fever and the school notified her brother, who was a physician, that he needed to take her home. The journey was long and arduous with Alice slipping in and out of consciousness.
When they arrived at The Hermitage, Allard took her to her room and began to examine her at which time he discovered the ring. He was furious. The legend is that he snatched the ring from her neck and threw it into the inlet. When she next came to, she felt for her ring, and not finding it, became distraught. She begged whomever was tending to her to find her ring. Someone gave her another ring to appease her, but she knew immediately that it wasn’t hers. Exhausted from her despair, she would again pass out. Finally, the fever was too much for her and she ultimately passed away. Some say that she died not from the fever, but of a broken heart.
Her mother had been visiting family in the mountains and had been summoned, but it would be a few days before she could get home. In the meanwhile, Alice was placed in a shallow grave near the house until the family could gather for the funeral at which time her body would be exhumed and placed permanently in a family plot. Ever since, there have been claims of sightings of Alice’s ghost in her room where she died, on the grounds of The Hermitage where she had been briefly buried, and in the graveyard of All Saints Church.
When I was a child in the early 1970s, on Friday and Saturday afternoons, the then owner of The Hermitage, Clarke Willcox, would sit on the front porch overlooking the inlet and tell whomever who wanted to drive up and listen about the stories of the Flagg family. I would sit patiently listening to all of the family history until, at the end, he finally told the story of Alice.
That’s where I first heard about the sightings. I was wide-eyed when he told us about a group of teenagers who had recently performed the ritual at the grave at All Saint’s and then, off to the side of the cemetery, they saw a girl dressed in white. Then she disappeared. I believed everything he said hook, line and sinker. I tell my guests these same stories on my Thursday tours as my way of keeping Mr. Willcox’s tradition going.
Another Murrells Inlet legend is that of its most beloved pirate who also happened to be one of Blackbeard’s men, a fellow now known as Drunken Jack. The story goes that Blackbeard and his crew had successfully procured a large amount of Caribbean rum. So much that it was slowing them down significantly. As they were in the neighborhood, the notorious captain thought it would be a good idea to offload some casks for safe keeping on one of the little islands in the inlet. While there, they also took advantage of the good seafood. Murrells Inlet is known today as the Seafood Capital of South Carolina. They enjoyed quite the feast of oysters, crab and all the rum they could drink. They got plastered, especially Jack. He found a quiet place under some bushes and slept it off. The next day when he awoke, he noticed that it was really quiet and, when he looked around, everyone was gone. They had sailed on the high tide and had completely overlooked him. When they did realize their oversight, they figured that Jack could take care of himself and that they would return for him when it was time to pick up the rum.
Two years later, they returned. On the beach of that little island, they find 32 empty rum casks and a skeleton about the size of Jack lying nearby. If you look out to the Atlantic from the Marsh Walk in Murrells Inlet, just to the right of the jetties, you will see what is still today called Drunken Jack Island.