Tuscaloosa, AL – Who is the crazy woman with a gentle touch, who tucks the children in at night and sings songs in the darkness? Who is the drunken idiot who falls down the stairs and kills himself? And what is the cause of the mysterious fires that annoy the fire department because they simply aren’t there? What is the cause? Is it madness? Alcohol-fueled dementia? Or is it rage over a purposefully ignored last request? In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, you never know the cause. It might be all three.
How important is a person’s last wish? Movies and books often tell about a condemned person’s will or a prisoner’s last meal. But just how important is it that a person’s last command on Earth be carried out by his or her loved ones? After all, they’re dead, right? It’s not like they can come back and ask you why you didn’t do as they asked. In some cases, it seems, they certainly can. While many hauntings are caused by violent death or unreached goals, there is another type, the cause of which is nowhere near so dramatic. The specter wasn’t slain, isn’t waiting for a lost love that will never come. No, the spirit of the house is angry and sad, all because someone didn’t honor her last wish.
The history of the building called Drish Mansion is filled with tragedy and injustice, almost since its construction. Sarah McKinney, a widow with a considerable fortune, came to Tuscaloosa from Virginia, where she met Dr. John Drish. The two became a hot item and were married soon afterword. Sarah’s fortune, however, became the property of John Drish, who used it (and a parcel of slaves) to build their home on eighty acres. But while Drish was considered by most to be a good man, he couldn’t stay away from alcohol or gambling, and often lost large sums of money in poker games.
The first real tragedy that came to the Drish home befell the doctor’s daughter from a previous marriage, Katherine. She fell in love with a young man who was beneath her station, and whom she was forbidden to marry. When she insisted that this man was the one for her, Drish locked her in her room for several weeks and allowed her only bread and water, then managed to “convince” the young man to leave town. To add insult to injury, Drish also arranged a marriage to a man she’d never met and didn’t care for. After she had two sons by her husband, she began to display signs of dementia, and her husband took her back to Drish Mansion, along with her two boys, and divorced her. She never recovered, and had to be locked in her room at night and followed during the day to ensure she would not hurt herself.
Almost at the same time, a niece named Helen, who’d lived with the Drish family for a while and whose things were still in the home, was murdered by her husband. After a night of drinking, he sliced her throat with a straight-razor, almost decapitating her. He was thrown in an asylum for many years until his release, after which he became a railroad tycoon. But the slaves in the house would not touch, nor would they allow to be touched, anything that belonged to Helen, saying that her ghost would not be pleased if her things were moved.
Drish continued drinking over the loss of his niece, his daughter’s decaying mental state, and the rapid erosion of his wife’s money. He drank so much, in fact, that he developed delirium tremors, and often had to be restrained by his slaves. One evening, he lept from his bed and rushed down the stairs. Halfway down, he screamed and fell dead.
Sarah Drish layed her husband out in the tower room and, as was the custom, surrounded his coffin with lit candles. There were so many, in fact, that many thought the upstairs room was on fire. When her husband was buried, Sarah took the candles and put them away, but asked that, when she died, the same candles be used around her own body. When she died, however, her remaining family did not honor her wish, and she was buried without the ceremony.
There are several ghost stories that surround Drish Mansion. The first, reported to be heard time and time again by the Drish’s slaves, was the repeated sound of Dr. Drish’s last run down the stairs where he died. They heard his running feet, heard his startled cry, and heard his body thud to the floor.
A second ghost, seemingly benign in nature, took to tucking the children of a relative in at night. Believed to be either Katherine or Sarah, the ghost has never been known to be aggressive or threatening, but seems to dearly love children.
The third, and most persistent ghost, has been a thorn in the side of the fire department for decades. First reported by a judge who owned the house, he was interrupted during dinner by a frantic neighbor who banged on his door to tell him his house was on fire. The judge ran out and looked, and the top room of the tower, where Sarah Drish layed out her husband, did indeed appear to be burning. More instances, during which the fire department were called, occurred, but each time, investigation proved there to be no fire. During one such event, a woman who stayed down stairs saw the figure of Sarah Drish appear, letting her know exactly who was responsible for the phantom fires.
The home changed hands several times, each with their own stories to tell about it, until it was bought in 1906 by the Jemison School, which taught art, reading, music and other worthy pursuits to underprivileged children. The school didn’t last, however, and the home was leased by the Tuscaloosa Wrecking Service, which saw the place turned into little more than a junk yard. It stayed that way until 1940, when the Southside Baptist Church built a sanctuary on the side of the house and used it for worship. It stayed that way until 2003, when it was handed over to the preservation society. But with little funds and no real owner, the house was vandalized and now sits “mostly empty.”
For a house like this one to be destroyed by time or a wrecking ball is, simply put, a crime. It isn’t open to the public, but a phone call to the commission might grant a person access. The best time to see it is “soon,” as no one’s sure how much longer it’ll be around.
See you in two weeks!
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