Of course, as a Christian, I don’t officially approve of ghost stories, and this was more the explanation behind a local legend than promulgating tall tales about the supernatural. The melodramatic story of a young girl tied to a gravestone by her vexed schoolmaster and left there overnight is still told around the Lowcountry. It's part of what awakened my curiosity about the Charleston area, and later, my love for the more obscure bits of local history.
|Strawberry Chapel, side and rear|
A school was also located here, attended by Catherine Chicken, the great-granddaughter of James Child, the seven-year-old heroine of the local legend. The most trustworthy accounts tell us that, yes, at the tender age of seven she was tied to one of the tombstones in the Strawberry Chapel churchyard by her schoolmaster for some infraction and left until after nightfall. One of the family’s servants discovered and rescued her, and the offending schoolmaster was run out of town, but the story gave rise to all sorts of embellishments and legends—one of which was that the girl died of fright and her ghost haunts the churchyard, still.
Not so, but the place has suffered under the constant stream of ghost hunters and thrill-seeking teens. During our first visit to Strawberry Chapel in 2006 during a family photography outing, I was shocked to see so many signs of vandalism. Box tombs open or cracked (nothing to see inside; the actual grave is below ground, but this is apparently a popular form of monument in historic Southern cemeteries), broken glass littering the place, especially around the curiously open, arched brick construction a few yards away from the church. But as my first study in original church buildings in the Charleston area, the place enthralled me.
The church itself is a small, white building, covered in weathered plaster, with a shingled jerkin-head roof. (See the photos for exactly what that means—the flattened corners at the “head” of the roof.) Like other historic places, it just smells old, and the churchyard is graced by crape myrtle, camellias, and several sprawling live oaks draped in Spanish moss. Walking through and reading headstones is always a lesson in local history, to me, and in this case just made me hungry to go search out the stories behind the names. No ghosts here, even in the obscure corner where a miniature version of the stars-and-bars decorated the grave of a Confederate veteran.
I later learned that the brick “cave,” pictured above, was not a crypt as we’d originally guessed, but a place to temporarily shelter a coffin in inclement weather. And on one visit, I discovered a peephole in the front door of the chapel, offering a view inside. Plain, dark wood pews and slate floors—and the sunlight slanting in through a window, bathing the sanctuary in a pool of light. The next time, however, the peephole was boarded over.
Over the years, I've noticed the addition of floodlights and surveillance cameras to the churchyard. Because of the worsening vandalism, the caretakers have felt the need to exclude casual visitors. Stories have surfaced of people being asked to leave by caretakers, and a friend’s brother was actually arrested for trespassing. Another friend and I visited one day but weren’t challenged—I hope because we were careful to treat the property with respect.
Despite its long standing as a historic site open to the public, most informational sites online now state that the chapel and churchyard are private property and trespassing will not be tolerated. I'm presuming that permission could be obtained to explore the site for research.
|Sunset on the Cooper River|
Except for the chapel building, everything else is only a memory.
|Playing in the field that was Childsbury|
My thanks to the photography talents of Kimberli Buffaloe, and my daughter Breanna McNear.