The Myrtles: History with a Side of Ghosts
By Anne Butler
The Myrtles Plantation, originally known as Laurel Grove, was established in the late 1790s by David Bradford, wealthy judge who in 1794 represented Monongahela Valley farmers opposing an unpopular excise tax newly levied by US authorities on their corn whiskey, the principal economic product of western Pennsylvania. He was prominent and influential, although some fellow attorneys in the region considered him “mentally unstable…and lacking in judgement” according to at least one book on the revolt, which was the first test of the power of the new federal government. As one of the ringleaders of the so-called Whiskey Rebellion, elected unanimously to serve as Major General in command of the forces, Bradford escaped arrest by heading to Spanish territory (the St. Francisville area remained under Spanish control until 1810). It was he who built the north section of the house on a grant of 650 arpents.
After his death in 1808, probate records itemize an estate including land, dozens of slaves, bedsteads and feather beds, looking glasses, 155 books, two dining tables, 9 silver teaspoons and 11 silver spoons, a pair of saddle bags and a valise, two swords, cotton cards and weavers’ loom and spinning wheels, one gig and harness, horses, oxen, hogs, ploughs and carpenters’ tools, geese and ducks and sheep, guns and ladies’ saddles, 730 barrels of corn, 1,000 pounds of seed cotton, and more. His widow Elizabeth retained most of the farming implements and livestock, household furnishings and some of the slaves, who were divided among the descendants with an apparent attempt to keep families together (“Three Negroes viz Bill, Miny his wife and their Child Maria, were offered for sale and being repeatedly cried were adjudged to Jane Speer with the consent of Henry Q. Speer her husband for the sum of $3060”).
Among David Bradford’s immediate heirs were a number who met with tragedy in life. His daughter Sophia in 1818 married the apparently unrelated James Morgan Bradford; an attorney who served in Capt. Jedediah Smith’s Feliciana Troop of Horse in the Battle of New Orleans before establishing the first newspaper published in the Florida Parishes of Louisiana, he was stabbed to death in 1837 during a quarrel with John McDermott. David Bradford’s son and namesake, born in 1796, married the sister of Jefferson Davis and was assassinated in 1844; he too had served in Capt. Smith’s cavalry.
The Myrtles was next occupied by Bradford’s daughter Sarah Mathilda, who in 1817 at age 16 married 38-year-old Judge Clark Woodruff, who had been a corporal in the Feliciana Troop of Horse. It was they who added the ornate grape-cluster wrought-iron grillwork to the lengthy front gallery. After yellow fever epidemics in 1823 and 1824 killed Woodruff’s wife and young son and daughter, he sold the property, along with improvements and slaves, for $46,853.17 to Ruffin Gray Stirling in 1834. Audubon’s pupil Eliza’s mother Lucretia Alston Pirrie’s first husband was Ruffin Gray of Oakley Plantation; her sister Ann Alston was the wife of early settler Alexander Stirling, and their son, born in 1795, was named Ruffin Gray Stirling for his uncle.
In the 1850s Stirling, a wealthy cotton planter who farmed thousands of acres, and his wife, Mary Catherine Cobb, added the large central hallway and southern section, doubling the size of the house; skilled European craftsmen formalized the rooms with faux bois and elaborate pierced friezework, the plaster a mixture of clay, Spanish moss and cattle or deer hair. In June 1852 their 19-year-old daughter Sarah Mulford Stirling married William Drew Winter at The Myrtles.
William Winter had been born in Bath, Maine, in 1820, a direct descendent of pilgrim John Alden. His father was a ship captain who drowned when William was 15, his first wife died in childbirth, and misfortune seemed to follow William all his life.
One fine day in August of 1856, just four years after his marriage at The Myrtles, he boarded the steamer Star bound for Last Island, popular with south Louisiana’s plantation families and residents of the Crescent City escaping deadly yellow fever epidemics amidst the healthful sea breezes. Just off the Louisiana coast, Isle Dernier was a fashionable Victorian resort with summer cottages and a small hotel, fine fishing and sea bathing, and broad sand beaches for promenading and carriage riding.
Aboard the Star, attorney William D. Winter approached the island just as Louisiana’s first great hurricane arrived unheralded from the opposite direction. Devastating winds and strong surf inundated the lowlying island from both gulf and bay sides, with houses collapsing and shrieking residents washed out to sea. The crippled Star, its anchor chains snapped, was very nearly swept past the island to perish in gulf waters, but as the captain struggled to dock, the vessel bilged in the sand near the highest point of the island.
One of the heroes of the disaster would be William Winter, who arrived in time to see the collapse of the island hotel where numerous guests and visitors had taken refuge. With his colleague Dr. Jones Lyle, Winter leapt from the foundering steamboat into the raging waters and rushed into the shattered hotel to save scores of men, women and children, leading them to the terrapin pens, sturdy enclosures holding turtles destined for the dining table. Then, during a brief calm in the midst of the storm, the men formed a human chain stretching toward the foundered Star and led their two dozen charges from the neck-deep waters of the terrapin pens to the safety of the boat’s hull.
Winter and Lyle were both known as great gourmets, and at one point during the frantic struggle, as they watched hundred-pound turtles swimming around the trapped survivors and being washed out to sea, Winter wryly commented on how many good dinners were being lost.
William Winter and his wife Sarah Stirling would have six children. An attorney, he served as agent for his widowed mother-in-law’s extensive properties, but the prosperous days of the Cotton Kingdom were over, and by 1867 William D. Winter had to declare bankruptcy. However, after a tax sale, the title to The Myrtles was transferred to his wife Sarah, and the family was still in residence on the tragic day in January 1871 when William Drew Winter met his end, according to Grace Episcopal Church records, “shot at his own door 26 Jan. at half past seven o’clock.”
Winter was said to have been teaching a son his Sunday School lessons in the front room at The Myrtles when he heard someone outside calling his name. He went out onto the front gallery and there he was shot dead with a double-barrel shotgun, “six buckshot taking effect in his breast.” His stunned family inside heard the shooting, followed by the sound of horse’s hooves clattering off into the distance.
Winter was buried in Grace Church cemetery the following day, and newspapers during this turbulent Reconstruction era recount the unsuccessful prosecution of former sheriff E.L. Weber and George Swayze for the murder. There had been disagreements over cotton and several lawsuits between Weber and Winter, and the coroner testified to hearing Weber make use of “unfriendly expressions” toward the deceased. The court affirmed that Winter was “foully and maliciously assassinated in cold blood…an outrageous dastardly act that struck terror to the hearts of every man, woman and child in this entire community. To be thus shot down in the vigor of manhood, in the floodtide of prosperity, conspicuous among men for his brilliant talents and attainments, eminent as an attorney and counselor at the bar of this State, at his own fireside, in the very bosom of his family.” But the first judge recused himself, the State’s witnesses could not be found and, although jailhouse conversations seemed to implicate the two defendants, the presiding Judge acquitted them both.
The Myrtles capitalizes wonderfully on its own woeful past, and on dark evenings with moonlight trickling down through the hanging moss, it looks downright scary. Sticklers for historical accuracy might regard as more entertainment than fact the scintillating and ever-changing stories that captivate and terrify tourists on popular mystery tours through a house billed as the most haunted in America-- the slave Chloe wearing a green tignon to cover the ear whacked off as punishment for eavesdropping, the tiny tots poisoned by oleander baked into a birthday cake, the slain Confederate soldiers and stabbings over gambling debts, the illicit affairs between master and slave, the disturbed Indian burial mound and the unquiet spirits captured in discolored mirrors. But the murder at The Myrtles of William Drew Winter is another story altogether, and one well-grounded in historical fact.
From the 1890s to the 1950s The Myrtles had a succession of owners, including Harrison Williams who’d gone to the Civil War as a 15-year-old Confederate cavalry courier and was the last to actually raise crops on the place. Today this popular tourist destination, owned since 1992 by John E. and Teeta Moss who have recently handed over the responsibility to son Morgan, has taken on a new focus, more of a destination area complete with dining in the new 1796 Restaurant, B&B in the main house or shotgun cottages, bricked courtyard to the rear and tidy parterre garden leading to the front entrance. There are daily tours through the historic house, specialized mystery tours, and enormously popular Halloween Experience extravaganza tours on weekends in October (Friday, Saturday and Sunday 5 to 10 p.m.) guaranteed to scare the pants off visitors. Advance reservations are suggested and may be made online or by calling 800-809-0565 or 225-635-6277.
Other events commemorating Halloween are Trunk or Treat at the West Feliciana Sports Park on October 24th, downtown trick or treating on Halloween sponsored by Main Street and the local merchants, and All Hallows Eve at Audubon State Historic Site on Friday, October 25, from 6 to 8 p.m., a traditional 1800s fall festival with storytelling, pumpkin carving, apple bobbing, superstitions, divinations and games for the whole family (for information, call 888-677-2838 toll free or 225-635-3739).
One of the area’s iconic events, a fall tradition for gardening enthusiasts across the south organized in tribute to the glorious 19th-century gardens still extant in the St. Francisville area, is the Southern Garden Symposium October 18 and 19th, when nationally renowned speakers conduct programs in plantation settings including Rosedown, Afton Villa and historic churches on Friday; a Saturday symposium at Hemingbough features outstanding lectures, autographed gardening books and tools. For information and ticket information, online firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other October events drawing visitors to the St. Francisville area include the Angola Rodeo and Craft Show every Sunday, and the popular Yellow Leaf Festival in St. Francisville’s oak-shaded Parker Park on October 27 and 28, featuring lots of carefully curated art works as well as continuous live music and good food.
Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination. Several splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: The Cottage Plantation (weekends), Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens is open in season. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation (a National Historic Landmark) and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs.
The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses in St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.
For visitor information, call West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society at 225-6330 o r 225-635-4224, or St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873; online www.stfrancisville.us, www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, or www.stfrancisville.net (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).