“Song for Lazaretto” – A chill in the basement and a history lesson – Thetybeetimes.net

Ghosts on Tybee Series

After researching the history of Tybee’s Lazaretto Creek some years ago, I wrote an article called,  “A Lazaretto Primer” that appears on this site, … also wrote a song that incorporates an interpretation of that history, and a story about how the song was conceived. I don’t presume to know any particulars other than what’s written here, and of course there may be others on Tybee and elsewhere who can add more accurate details. I might add, some have labeled the following a ghost story. I agree, for as the bitter cold of Ohio’s winter in 2001 piled snow high outside our basement windows I believe I had what might be described as a ‘visitation.’ The encounter caught me off guard, but whatever happened cured my writer’s block once and for all. Never again will I put off writing when such inspiration calls. This story has been revised twice and appears on other sites with updates including Real Spooks. The events are true, but since feelings are subjective, I’ll let the reader decide between fact and fiction.

It was January 2001, on the eve of the death of my family friend and mentor, Emma Kelly, Johnny Mercer’s “Lady of 6000 Songs.” John Berendt’s novel, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil devotes an entire chapter to this beloved local character.

I was in the basement of our Silver Lake home, carrying out a New Year’s resolution to clean out my desk. While sorting through stacks of papers and junk mail that had accumulated in the middle drawer, I noticed a small blue pamphlet brought back from Tybee Island the summer before.

We’d visited the lighthouse while vacationing there, and the folksy promotional piece provided a pleasant diversion from the howling blizzard outside. To my surprise, it mentioned a ‘quarantine’ that had once operated on the far west side of the island. Though I’d grown up in the area and paid many visits to Tybee, I’d never heard of this. Information about Lazaretto Creek and the quarantine was sparse, as it obviously wasn’t the most documented of local attractions.

For sure, I’d choose research over cleaning, any snowy day, so I got out my southern history books, and went online. I spent the rest of that afternoon and a portion of the next discovering what I could about the history and founding of Georgia, Savannah, Tybee Island, the Spaniards, the pirates, and the Civil War.

The pamphlet also mentioned Indians, and more specifically, ‘Euchee‘ (Uchee) Indians. I’ve since learned that while it is true that the word “Tybee” is derived from the word Taube, which means ‘salt,’ the word is Itza Maya, Apalache Creek/Itzate (Hitchiti), which means that the native Americans who initially lived, hunted at gathered trade items from the mouth of the Savannah River were in fact “Chicora,” and the Uchee, who had settled along the banks of the Oconee, and at the headwaters of the Ogeechee, Chatanooga, and Savannah Rivers, while also associated with the islands of Wahale or Guale, including Tybee, merely adopted the word as their own, … but that’s another story all together.

Tybee Island is the most northerly of Georgia’s “Golden Isles.” Twenty miles east of Savannah, it has a small strip of land that extends westward, out into a vast area of coastal marshlands. This strip, with immediate access to the shipping channel, became the location for two consecutive quarantines that operated in the late 1700s, into the early 1800s. The first, located on the island’s western side on the tidal creek that now bears its name, was simply called a ‘lazaretto.’

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, it housed unfortunate European immigrants who contracted contagious diseases such as yellow fever or worse on board ship during the transatlantic voyage to America. It was also the ‘welcoming station’ for a host of infected African slaves who emerged from the cargo holds of the treacherous middle passage.

Like all seaports, Savannah could ill afford contamination of the mainland, so incoming vessels experiencing outbreaks had to unload the sick and cleanse the decks before continuing up river to port. Sometimes they were forced to remain at the mouth of the Savannah River for months before given clearance to proceed.

The present-day Italian term lazaretto, or lazaret simply translated means hospital, but in the Middle Ages it literally meant ‘pest house’ – a place for those dying from the plague or leprosy. Derived from the Hebrew word lazar, or leper, it also refers to the biblical figure, Lazarus, the one that Christ raised from the dead. Research also indicates that remote portions of the first quarantine, a 104-acre tract purchased in 1767 from patriot, Josiah Tattnall probably served as a leper’s colony.

After continuous use throughout the Revolution, the Savannah Grand Jury reported it in ‘ruinous condition’ in 1785. It was abandoned, and a new site opened across the way on nearby Cockspur Island. I also discovered that in 1954 the Georgia Historical Society had placed the small historic marker (pictured below), at the original site’s general vicinity along Highway 80 East.

That second evening around 9:30 p.m. after everyone else went to bed, I went to the basement to finish putting my desk in order. Then I sat down to write. I’d organized my thoughts into what I decided would be a poem about what I’d read of the history of Savannah, the quarantines and the surrounding marshes. However, in all the years I’d visited though I’d sailed in a hobie cat off north end, I’d never done any boating around the island, much less in the marshes, and didn’t really know where to start.

I set out to describe the place as best I could imagine knowing that sometimes, if you just begin writing real substance eventually kicks in. But I’d barely gotten the words of the first two lines down, when a strange thing happened. It began as a slight tingle. Then, almost as if someone had slipped up beside me, and touched me on the shoulder, there was whispering in my ear.

The words were not clear, but next moment I could feel myself standing shoulder-deep, in cold, rushing water, with tall green grass and the smell of salt all around. It suddenly dawned on me – I was in the marsh, and quickly, being sucked down by the undertow. I felt I was drowning. For several anxious seconds, I was even sick to my stomach.

Then as quickly as the sensation came, it was gone. I sat there wondering if maybe I was coming down with something, or having a slight stroke – whatever it was, it was very real. I got up to pour a drink of water, and resumed my seat at the computer to read over the words I’d typed:

“It runs from the mouth of South Channel, with the tide it meanders round…”

Emma Thompson Kelly (Dec. 17th, 1918 – Jan. 17th, 2001)

It wasn’t late, and I was anything but sleepy, so I decided to keep writing and see what else might happen. Except for the fact that I couldn’t stop and a ten-versed poem emerged, the rest of the evening was uneventful. But the following afternoon my mom called from Georgia to tell me that Emma Kelly had died. Now, I don’t believe for a minute the experience had anything to do with Emma other than the fact that the incident occurred and it served to mark her passing for me.

The strange thing was that exactly one year later to that very day, January 17th, I found myself crossing the Lazaretto, coming to live on Tybee Island, and in the months that followed, I thought about “Miss Emma” every time I passed the Pirate’s House where she’d played at Hannah’s East in downtown Savannah. It felt a little strange crossing the bridge onto the island many times that first year, too – I still think about it sometimes.

It wasn’t until 2005 however while I was working on an article for a local publication that I learned the spot on the western side of the island where the fishing fleet now docks was actually considered to be haunted by some of the locals. I’d hoped to start off with a house on Officer’s Row and do a series on Tybee ‘ghost,’ but it was the holidays and the owners weren’t in town, an I ended up over at Lazaretto Creek. When folks at the marina claimed to have seen dark figures with tattered clothes walking out on the docks in the darkness, I wasn’t surprised. I was told that on two occasions, such a figure walked right into a room, stood and stared in silence, then disappeared. Considered, a mystery to this day, I’d wager one of “Lazaretto’s Lost Souls” was out and about.

If ever a place had reason to be haunted, this might be one. Granted, it isn’t Gettysburg, Hiroshima or Dauchau, or a place where millions have suffered, and I don’t wish to labor the point, but eighteenth century necessity paid a brief, but costly visit to Lazaretto Creek, another lonely little corner of the world, where outcasts perished. For those dying in quarantine on the outskirts of the New World after traveling across the vast ocean in hopes of finding a better life, it was a terrible fate.

Even worse, imagine being torn away from loved ones and homeland, and thrown into the pain and horror of slavery. After languishing in chains in the stench and filth below deck with the rest of your unfortunate comrades, you’d probably have welcomed death rather than recovery, especially if there was no hope of freedom.

The song I wrote that snowy night in Ohio is a tale of history influenced by what I “felt and saw,” and what I believe. You’ll find it linked to the photo of the sunset above. Try reading it on the dock at the marina at dusk, and let me know what you think.

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© 2011 The Tybee Times© 2012 Real Spooks 

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“SONG FOR LAZARETTO” f# minor (copyright Jan. 2001)

1. It runs to the mouth of South Channel, with the tide, it meanders ’round winding its way through the marsh’s waving grasses and soggy ground. It curves like a rippled gray ribbon, the sash on a satin gown, and touches the back of the island on the side where the sun goes down. Many red sunsets have lingered high above this floating plain, to promise relief from the storms at sea – from the waves, the wind, and the rain.

2. The Uchee walked on Tybee long before the Spanish came; … from the Hitchiti-Maya word for salt, the island got its name. Though fearsome pirates ventured here whose deeds became renowned, where Blackbeard buried his treasure dear, has never yet been found. While pirate days were numbered, also, French and Spanish gain, the English anchored at Tybee, determined to remain.

3. The founders envisioned Savannah: ‘No tenured property – a viceless, yeoman’s utopia; no rum, no slavery.’ Then trade in Chatham began to fail, and small farms but survived, while over in South Carolina, the rice plantations thrived. As loss and disenchantment overshadowed past convictions, they offered the land grant titles, and lifted the slave restrictions.

4. For years, when ships reached Tybee Light, they’d stop at South Channel Sound. They’d unload the sick and the dying, both the free, … and the bound. They’d leave them here, where this little creek, still far from Savannah town, touches the back of the island on the side where the sun goes down … at a place called ‘lazaretto,’ where a quarantine would hold all the ones with dreaded diseases, and the ones too sick to be sold.

5. While great blue herons nested out beyond the island’s view, mosquito swarms would buzz and bite ’til evening breezes blew. Windswept cedars, and pines, and palms, and crooked oak trees spread … alms of mercy at ‘lazaretto,’ like a summons to ‘raise the dead.’ Though comforters braved the perils, and full moons waxed and waned, there was no such ‘resurrection,’ for the dying who remained.

Refrain 1: Lazaretto! Here, beyond the stormy sea, was no promise for tomorrow, in your sunset reverie? Why must these things be so? What hope can ever be, as we lie here, Lazaretto, to rise again and be free?

6. Now, the South had known misfortune, but the price was high to pay, when the Union armies marched right in, and took it all away. Though Sherman spared Savannah the flames that others knew, the way of life was ended … and the means of living, too. While great plantations emptied, and fields were laid so low, the slaves were freed, but many stayed. They’d nowhere else to go.

7. But the worst they’d fear on Tybee now were fevers and hurricanes, and the days of the quarantines would close, leaving the last remains of the site where many perished, tide-washed and over-grown, … while rails were laid, then a road was made, and seeds of progress, sown. Nothing survived to mark the graves of the souls lost in that place – nothing perhaps, but a secret mark, that time cannot erase.

8. Today, the bridge that spans the creek affords a scenic a view of the waters off Cockspur lighthouse, as they rush to the ocean blue. Here, the island ‘shrimpers’ dock, and nearby, dolphins play, While hungry seabirds circle low to scavenge what they may … and out on the west horizon, where the miles of marshes grow, the sunsets still do linger as they did so long ago.

9. Many tales are told of those who’ve walked these timeless beaches, and the ways of former slaves live on where the GeeChee culture reaches. The creek still curves like a ribbon, as it winds along with the tide, though it cannot tell a single word how any have lived or died, but at times out here, there’s a sound on the wind, the voice of a memory, that fills the heart of these marshes, like the tide that’s up from the sea,

Refrain 2: “Lazaretto, … many things should never be as the deeds and reasons sleeping fill the pages of history. Yet, there is no doubt as the years rush out to meet eternity, they who lie here in the depths below, … asleep in mystery…

10. … May also hear that trumpet blow beyond the stormy sea – down… where your waters flow the day you set them free … down, … where your waters flow on the sundown side of Tybee, … like a witness, Lazaretto, you wait so patiently – a witness, Lazaretto, wait and see…”

Editor’s Notes:

Again, try reading this poem on the dock at Lazaretto Creek after sunset, and let me know how you feel. I repeat, I don’t really believe in ‘ghosts,’ although I do believe in an ultimate resurrection of the dead. I’m not trying to dispute or debate the possibility and there may well be such things – physical manifestations of real people who appear after death, it’s just that I’ve never seen one, but had I been so privileged, my question would be this: If such apparitions aren’t the souls of the departed, what are they? Certain religions teach that demons often disguise themselves as real people, and this may be true, but it doesn’t seem to fit for all such “encounters.” While considering some of the alternatives to the traditional concepts of hauntings, I’ve come to entertain another explanation.

For years, so called fringe scientists investigating time travel believed that time and space are measurable and transversable. I don’t remember hearing that anyone succeeded in getting past the present either way, but they thought it was possible. Some faiths teach that the Spirit of God can speak through scripture, prayer, and inspired visions – not only about the past, but about the future as well. Some rely upon traditional teachings of ancestors, depravity, or hallucinogenics for supernatural inspiration, or spirit guides, or mediums to give them insight and extra-sensory knowledge; others claim re-incarnation allow them to relive particular events personally experienced in another body.

Most traditional religions that accept the premise of a Creator also hold that this “presence” is divine, eternal and omnipresent, and whatever speaks to the living is very much operating in the here and now. Experts even say human imagination (psyche) rivals anything we’ll ever encounter on this side of life – it’s often as real and potentially influential as any so-called reality. What if the creation itself has a collective consciousness that speaks to the living – a so called “cosmic consciousness,” sometimes also described as supernatural, psychic DNA?  As layers and layers of humanity are laid down upon one another in the dust, what if creation, or the earth itself also possesses a kind of “collective psyche” that remembers everything that happens here, stores it, and sometimes even speaks to us about it?

For whatever reason, almost like the layers of an onion, the present-day surface can be peeled back to allow a glimpse, or a post-monition of what occurred in a particular place or time revealing “hot spots,” that retain vivid imagery of memories of the past, even writings that contain historically descriptive details with the capacity to port elements of psychic recall – just like a video or an audio recording, something triggers it at a certain spot, and it simply plays. If such memories of events, places and people, great and small, may be revisited for a brief moment, why should someone have to travel to another time, seek to consult the dead, or have lived before to experience a past event? Isn’t it all still here? My guess is we’re more closely related and susceptible to such primal elements than we care to admit.

But there’s more. Both Old and New Testament Bible scriptures describes “the fall” of Adam and Eve, (mankind), and their banishment from the Garden of Eden, and mention that the earth was also stripped of “her former glory” and subdued for their “benefit,” albeit for future generations as well, so that we might continue to live here. To me, that’s an awesome thought.

I’m no theologian, but the apostle Peter also states that “all creation awaits transformation in Christ,” and implies that ever since the fall of man, the very place we walk upon has not only received us in death, but is literally “groaning” under the weight of the same banishment. Perhaps it’s the groaning voice of creation playing back memories of the past that are being perceived as hauntings.

Most folks out on the street don’t readily admit to having visions, at least not the way some describe them. Perhaps all the hidden ‘layers of the onion’ are accessible – everyone gets the same input, yet we just process it differently. We manage our daily lives in the “real” world kicking the dust around, not listening to it. We’d rather be inspired by a gorgeous sunset, or a full moon on the rise, than be disturbed by encounters that give us the shivers.

Can I hear an “Amen?”


By the way, The Tybee Times is gathering information for a series called GHOSTS ON TYBEE.  If you have any at your house – or in your wildest imagination, I’d like to hear from you!

© 2011 The Tybee Times,  © 2001 “A Song for Lazaretto”

(Photos by C. Kinkel)

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