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A Savannah Ghost Story: The Ghost of Alice Riley

Every town has a legendary ghost story. Sometimes, even driving past the creepiest of buildings on the street causes humans to associate them with supernatural occurrences. Most towns have even had ghost stories and other urban legends that have been around for decades or even centuries. As generations have passed on these folklore tales they have been used as entertainment to spook the next generation.

Savannah, Georgia is home to more than just one eerie coincidence and isn’t your average southern-style city. Some supernatural instances in the coastal city have even been captured on video surveillance. Despite being known for the famous Forrest Gump scene and its coastal landscape along the Atlantic Ocean, the city is also known for one of the oddest supernatural occurrences: the story of Alice Riley.

Alice Riley A Slave

Alice Riley escaped the Irish famine in 1733 as an indentured servant at the young age of 15. Alice knew her fate wouldn’t be very lighthearted, as she was sold into slavery and passed around, as most trafficked enslaved women were. What Riley didn’t expect was for her master, William Wise, to be one of the cruelest and sadistic plantation owners in all of Savannah. Legend says he fabricated having a daughter and the young woman he took after was actually his prostitute. 

The earliest reports of the case of Alice Riley originate from a letter written to James Oglethorpe by town recorder Thomas Christie. On Dec. 14, 1734, Christie wrote to Oglethorpe, a founder of the colony of Georgia, who was away in England with Tomochichi’s Indian delegation.

His letter reads: 

“The unfortunate Mr. Wise, his effects was sold except papers and manuscripts remaining in a trunk in the store … . The manner of this murder was thus, which you have no doubt been acquainted with. He lay over in the island a considerable time in a very weak condition and kept [to] his bed. He used to call for some water in the morning to wash himself and White used to assist him in combing out his hair … . Alice Riley [an Irish servant] by the direction and influence of White brought a pail of water which she sat down by his bedside. White came in also, pretending to assist him in combing his hair. He usually wore a handkerchief about his neck and while he was leaning over the bedside, instead of combing his hair, White took hold by that handkerchief, which he twisted ‘till he was almost suffocated. Alice Riley at the same time took hold of the poll of his head and plunged his face into the pail of water and, being very weak, it soon dispatched him. As to the rest I refer to the proceedings of the Court… .”

Riley was the first woman to be hanged and classified as a murderer in the town of Savannah, Georgia. Chatham County remains accompanied by her presence centuries later. Tourists of the city now roam about where the hanging gallows once stood. The gallows provided insufferable justice to their gibbetted, a justice recognized and exhibited to not always favor the incorrupt or innocent, of either sex, thanks to Alice.

Just as most would expect for an enslaved white woman, Alice expected to be her master’s housemaid or some other indoor duty worker. Unfortunately, because of her good looks, the twisted evil man had other purposes for her. Quickly, Alice Riley learned that she would be sexually violated, used, and beaten up to the pleasure of her master.

Throughout her use as a sexual ragdoll to a perverted yet powerful man, she befriended his butler, a man called Richard White. After chemistry took its course between the two, a romantic relationship blossomed between them til death do they part. 

One night, White heard the screams of his newfound lover, and upon discovery of her master’s performances, the two cooperated in their master’s murder. 

Alice Rileys Abuse

Alice Riley could take no more abuse from William Wise’s sexual fantasies. On the night of March 16, 1734, she and Richard White had collaborated on running their sick and evil master’s bath. While caring for him, Alice forcefully grabbed her ruler’s head and drowned him to his death. Other reports say Wise was bedridden with illness when White and Riley completed his murder.

The townspeople had testified that Wise had been sick during his time as a plantation owner on his island and was physically viewed to be in a “weak condition” while confined to his bed. As a result of his confinement, the two caretakers Riley and White, orchestrated his daily bathing and grooming ritual. Richard White illustrated pride in his responsibility of helping comb his master’s long hair, while Alice Riley’s job was to bathe him.

Thomas Christie reported that one morning Riley, an accessory in the actions of her affaired co-conspirator Richard White, supplied a bucket of water and set it down by the ailing man’s bed, whereas White was reported facetiously assisting her by coming to comb his hair. During the act, he rather undid his own handkerchief to asphyxiate his master and tightened it, leaving him breathless before completing his suffocation. Alice Riley assisted in White’s vengeful act on Wise as she submerged his face in the bathing bucket of water. Out of breath, the evil slave owner succumbed to his strangulation.

The two vindictive servants fled from the lifeless master’s bathroom off the plantation, later caught by authorities for their crime. This was a first-time criminal offense for each of them. White and Alice Riley were arrested and sentenced to be hanged in Savannah’s Wright Square for the murder of William Wise.

Georgians were celebrant in the executions of their criminals, especially in a city like Savannah. However, back in the 1700s during times of indentured servitude, women typically were not hanged in the Southern states. Not only was Alice Riley a special case for being a woman criminal, but she also bore a child with her late master. 

Alice Rileys Execution

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Savannah’s people would not dare to hang a pregnant woman, but comforting a criminal would not be seen as just either. The city’s people left Alice Riley to grieve by executing her lover Richard White immediately, held her prisoner until her child’s birth, and then executed her shortly after. On the afternoon of January 19, 1735, White and Riley were together at last, despite months between their cold, revengeful, writhed bodies having been hanged.

A second witness letter revolving the incident derives from Edward Jenkins. On January 20, 1735, Jenkins scribed to Ogelthorpe that he and his servants, a pair of brothers, noticed an unfamiliar man suspiciously running through his land. The man they noticed was Richard White not long after his escape from jail. He gave his servants two hooks and an axe as weapons to assist in White’s detainment. They were instructed to kill him immediately and without question if given any trouble by White himself.

Not two full months after Riley’s execution, her baby joined her in the afterlife. While the rumours of today argue that Alice RIley’s body had hanged in the gallows for three days, battling for survival and leading to her sudden disappearance, no testimonials of the colonial era confirm it true. 

Today, the Wright Square is located on Bull Street between West State Street and West York Street and is home to the judicial district of the city, as it has been home to the city’s courthouse since the colonial period. It has been reported that the distraught and haunted spirit of Alice Riley roams the streets of Savannah throughout Wright Square to this day. More recently, she has been spotted near gatherings of expectant mothers or mothers with newly born infants. 

Nobody truly knows if Alice Riley was innocent for the murder of William Wise. Alice claimed herself innocent from the minute of her arrest until her very last breath in the gallows. Ironically, an old wives’ tale says that Spanish moss will never grow where innocent blood is shed. Coincidentally enough, however, the trees of Wright Square are the only trees of the city of Savannah, Georgia that fail to grow the mark of guilt.

Frequently, both locals and tourists alike experience sightings of her ghost, panicked with urgency to call the police to help her find her baby. Only the tenured of the police know of her as Alice, while rookies set out to search in help of the non-existent woman.

Alice Riley’s spirit roams the streets in her three-century-old, tattered clothing. Not many people consider her different due to the historic guided tours throughout the streets of Savannah.

Why is Alice Riley’s Ghost Famous?

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Alice Riley was a young, Catholic girl who fled from her family and home country of Ireland at the young age of fifteen in pursuit to live a better life for herself. The Irish famine in the 1730s left her no choice but to flee to America as an indentured servant, not knowing what hardships she would truly face until her arrival. Her time as William Wise’s assigned scarlet woman narrates a graphic tale of the treatment of female indentured servants, both white and African-American. 

Other Savannahian Haunted Happenings

Many documentary shows such as “Haunting Evidence” on truTV and “Haunted Towns” on Destination America have featured Alice as well as other various deceased Savannah visitors.

Riley was featured on an episode that took place near the Ogelthorpe House and Liquid Sands glass shop. 

Another haunted Wright Square appearance is that of early Savannah doctor William Cox. Cox was known in the square for healing his patients of yellow fever. Eventually the doctor caught the disease himself, causing his death.

Some Savannahians have encountered ghostly experiences in Wright Square other than Alice. One resident of the Georgian city reports of a racist ghost resembling a “crazy old white lady”, stating “she would walk around with a stick and take a swing at any African-American walking by.” Similar to other news reportings, however, it has been determined the woman in question was not a spiritual being, but an alive and racist elderly woman who had not been taking her medicine.

Anna Powers, known as “Broken-Hearted Anna”, inhabits one of Savannah’s oldest inns, the 17Hundred90 Inn & Restaurant. Back then, the inn was originally her father’s home. He would rent the house to sailors in passing, similar to today’s methods of AirBnB. One day, Anna fell in love with one of the rooming sailors. Their relationship, however, was abusive and unhealthy. One night after fighting in the master bedroom, a distressed Anna jumped from the second-story window resulting in her death. The room, now known as Room 204 at the 17Hundred90 Inn, is haunted by her spirit flickering the bedroom lights and (un)locking doors as she pleases.

Humans are not the only things haunting the city of Savannah. One ghoulish cat haunts the Isaiah Davenport House Museum. Reports of the feline and a girl dressed in polka-dots playing ball have been seen by tourists as they have been guided throughout the historic building.

Bonaventure Cemetery spans nearly over one hundred acres of memorials for the dead across Savannah. Despite its breathtaking beauty during the day, the location leaves an eerily quiet setting of paranormal activity at night. One of the most recognizable hauntings throughout Bonaventure is the old grave of little girl Gracie Watson.  Her tombstone has been reported to cry tears of blood while sounds of her cries and screams can be heard throughout the night.

Tour Savannah’s Most Haunted Places

Sightings of Alice Riley occur frequently throughout Savannah’s colonial hanging square. If you ever deem yourself successful in spotting the grieving ghost herself, feel free to ask her if she’s truly innocent, so that her story can live on for another three hundred years.

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