Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Savannah’s Most Haunted: Pirates House

The history of the Pirates House in Savannah, Georgia could be straight out of a 1940s Hollywood movie. This tavern built in 1734 is the oldest structure in Savannah. For many years this tavern was a dangerous place to enter. Pirates actually Privateers * used the tavern to waylay unsuspecting patrons—they would get them drunk, drug them or hit them over the head and then shanghai them in order to supply able bodied men to the various Privateer captains that had trouble getting crew members because of their line of work. **

Early Savannah residents originally developed the land surrounding the Pirates House as an experimental Botanical garden. This endeavor failed because the climate was too hot for the plants to survive. At some point, a Herb House and another small room was added to the original structure and it became a tavern in 1753. The first floor was used to serve drinks and food and the upper floor rooms were used as an inn for travelers to spend the night.

The tavern also boasts a very large tunnel in the basement, originally the rum cellar, that runs from the Pirate’s house to the nearby Savannah River a block away. Today this tunnel is sealed off at both ends. During the Pirate House’s shanghai history this tunnel was used to run rum and take unconscious men to nearby waiting ships where they were forced to join in the Privateer’s violent seafaring life.***

The English and French Privateers that preyed upon the Pirates House customers, which included: merchant marines, sailors, and the seedier side of the Savannah citizenry, felt they were above the law. Privateers with the blessings of the English government, would raid enemy ships, kill the crews, sell the ships and give a portion of their ill-gotten booty to the British government. French Privateer, Jean Lafitte whom I wrote about in another post, was just one of the many Privateers that had a deal with Britain. He often visited the tavern and inn. Others like him stayed at the Pirates House between their ship hunting activities—enjoying the drink, food and the unlawful crew recruitments. According to local historians these captains would negotiate with the Pirate House proprietor who for the right price--usually $12 to $14 per sailor would cooperate.

Captain Flint
It is said that it was the Pirates House that inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write about Captain Flint in his famous 1881 story “Treasure Island”. This fictionalized character was based upon the typical Privateer that ran their business out of the Pirates House. Stevenson even had this colorful character--Captain Flint—die of drink. He states the captain died while shouting "Darby M'Graw--fetch aft the rum". Ironically, part of the paranormal activity that is reported at the Pirates House by modern day patrons includes claims that they hear a male voice “moaning and calling for more rum”.

In the 1920s the Pirates House hosted a Jazz bar called Hard Hearted Hannahs the bands played upstairs. In 1948 the house, tavern and land were bought by the Savannah Gas Company. Ever since it has been used as a restaurant. Even today it is considered one of the best places to eat in Savannah. The first floor is the only part of the structure that is still in use. Despite the fact the structure has been modernized visitors state the building still has the feel of a 1800s tavern. If a visitor looks closely they can still see the original pegs that hold the beams in place. The structure’s walls also have the original Savannah bricks. ****

Port in Old Savannah
The upper floors of the Pirate’s house are no longer used except for storage. It is this area that is considered haunted as well as the basement tunnel. Most feel that ghosts hang around the structure because of its violent history. One incident connected to the Pirates House happened when two French privateers came to port after crew impressment had been outlawed in 1811. ***** Violence escalated which resulted in six American seamen being attacked by knife wielding French Privateers in the upper rooms of the tavern. During this fight two American sailors, 18-year-old second mate Jacob Taylor, from the brig Betty out of Philadelphia and his shipmate John Collins died. A French privateer, Pierre Scipion aged 23 also died. It is believed these are the men who haunt upstairs. Over the years many witnesses have seen ghosts wandering the tavern's hallways and dark passages.

* Pirates did terrorize the colonial southern coastal waters from 1680 to 1730 but by the time the Pirates House was constructed most pirates had been forced out of the area by the British Navy. These pirates then moved their operations to the waters around India and other less traveled parts of the Pacific Ocean—so the Pirates House was used by Privateers not pirates. What I find ironic here is the British set up a system of Privateers that were just as bad as the original pirates.

** “Crew impressment” was a common occurrence in the 1800s. Men who where shanghaied were most often sailors by trade.

*** One victim that was shanghaied from the Pirates House was a Savannah policeman he found himself on a ship traveling to China-- it took him two years to get back to Savannah.

**** The Pirates House has been carefully restored because this building is considered a “House Museum” by the American Museum Society.

***** Despite crew impressment being outlawed privateer ships kept coming to Savannah. The French Privateer schooners LaVengeance, and LaFrancise stopped in Savannah on their way to ply their trade in South America. In Savannah they hoped to shanghai new crew members but the Savannah citizens and sailors now frowned upon and believed "crew impressment" was a punishable offence. The violence escalated which resulted in the total destruction of both French ships.

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