Beaufort, South Carolina Most cities have some sort of historic district. These streets are those lined by houses from eras gone by. A person can look at the architecture and guess at the grandeur of life in the past. In every historic district there is the crown jewel, a house of such beauty and regal stature that it epitomizes the age. Beneath the shady oaks and past the vast lawn, it is difficult to picture the home as anything but a work of beauty. However, even if that house was the first built on that land, there is still history beyond the structure. Even in a place of such regality, there are shadows. Plates are thrown, objects stolen, and lives shattered, all to an underscore of laughter and the sound of tinkling bells.
Think for a moment about the land on which you stand. What was it before it was a house or apartment or business? Cow pasture or perhaps a squatter?s home? It could be that below the concrete lie secrets, histories that bleed through the floorboards and into the present.
The state that would become South Carolina has quite a history in its own right. It was the site of several Civil War battles as well as those of the American Revolution. But before the first settlers planted their roots, there was another group of explorers who left their own marks on the land: the Huguenots. Led by Jean Ribaut, these French explorers and followers of Calvinism came to North America in search of religious freedom. They founded the colony of Charlesfort on what is now Parris Island in 1562. The colony failed for several reasons with the colonists freezing and starving and many of them turning to cannibalism.
On board Ribaut?s ship was an unexpected explorer, one who seemed ill-suited for the rough life of settling wild lands. His name was Gauche, a dwarf who was a jester by trade. Gauche made up for his lack of height by being something of a rough customer. He reputedly died during a battle away from Charlesport, impaled on a pike on the lands which, three hundred years later, would be the site of the home of Dr. Joseph Johnson.
In 1859 Doctor Joseph Fickling Johnson hired workers to begin construction on his new home, a massive structure fitting his station in the Beaufort community. The house neared completion after two years, when the Civil War spilled into South Carolina. Federal troops occupied the house, using it as a military hospital. The completed outbuilding served as a morgue, and the grounds surrounding the house was used as a makeshift cemetery.
After the war Dr. Johnson was able to reacquire the house for a payment of $2,000 in taxes, and construction resumed. Soon after the house was completed, Johnson and his family moved in, but the gardeners immediately began to sense something was wrong. They reported seeing a tiny man in motley crossing the grounds, disappearing behind corners. The doctor himself claimed he saw the little man peeking through the windows and then scurrying away while laughing, the bells on his shoes tinkling as he went.
Johnson?s daughter, Lily, not only saw the spectral jester but often was visited by him while giving tea parties for her dolls in the basement of The Castle. When she spoke of him, she said he always cursed and seemed to genuinely dislike everyone. Her brother, another victim of the jester?s pranks, called him a ?rough little customer.? Houseguests were not immune to such treatment as he would move furniture and slam doors throughout the night, all to the sounds of the bells on his shoes.
According to Lily, the spirit communicated through a series of taps, which they wrote down and figured out to be a strange type of code. They found a person who could translate and discovered the words to be archaic 16th Century French. Once such translation was published in Tales of Beaufort by Nell S. Graydon, in which a houseguest held a strange interview with the restless spirit and learned his identity. It claimed its name was Gauche and that it lived in the cellar because it reminded him of his home that he?d never see again. When the guest asked if he could see Gauche, the jester replied, ?No, I do not show myself to fools.?
Although he refuses to show himself to those unworthy, Gauche has other methods of making his presence known. Cold spots can be felt throughout the house, furniture moves on its own, and doors slam throughout the night. House guests have reported seeing a wisp of fog rise out of the tidal creek by the house, take the form of a small man, and disappear into the night.
Perhaps the most disconcerting sign that Gauche has been by comes in the form of red handprints which the spriteful spook leaves on the outside of the second-floor windows.
Gauche is, by no means, confined to The Castle. His influence is also felt as far as a block away. In 1969 an ancestor of Dr. Johnson, Mrs. Danner, drove her housekeeper and cook home, leaving a pot roast in the oven for her dinner. When she returned, the roast was missing. The police could find no trace of the missing meal and wrote it off as either a hungry burglar who took advantage of the back door being unlocked or Gauche having gotten hungry. However, the very next evening, the neighbor of The Mansion discovered her pot roast missing from her locked kitchen with no signs of forced entry. The police were baffled and decided to blame the whole affair on the jaunty jester. Whether or not Gauche actually got hungry and pilfered the pot roast is purely academic, for as far as the city of Beaufort is concerned, the thief had bells on his shoes and laughed, swearing as he scampered out the door.
The Castle, also known as the Johnson House, stayed in the Johnson family until 1981. It has been used as the set for several movies including Last Dance and Forces of Nature. Now it sits at 411 Craven Street, claiming the whole block as its own, as one of the jewels of the city. Historic tours run through the city every day and make certain to stop to give tourists a sense of the grandeur of the city. People still occasionally see what they describe as a dwarf in a loud shirt and pointed shoes darting behind the trees in the yard or disappearing into the house.
Gauche seems to have little respect for schedules or planning ahead as there is no warning of when or how he will manifest. However, if the pot roast heist is to be believed, he seems to get most rambunctious during the winter months as the caper occurred on November 8th and 9th, 1969. However, South Carolina is most hospitable climate-wise during the spring months. The truly fortunate might even see Gauche — if they be not fools.
See you in two weeks!
Original artwork by Bill "Splat" Johnson