Fierce and instructive ghosts
How Gullah folklore and an author’s depression shaped an enduring Southern ghost story
A pair of sealed caskets bobbed to the surface of the floodwaters. I stood at the water’s edge gawking.
This was during the “thousand-year flood” of October 2015, when the Edisto River crested its banks and spilled into a Methodist church cemetery near Givhans, South Carolina.
Someone in the crowd of horrified onlookers mentioned he had seen water moccasins, and the group resolved to wait until the water receded to retrieve the bodies. Someone else mentioned that the caskets contained the bodies of a husband and wife, both buried that year.
While we were squinting at the caskets by the treeline, a preacher from the next town over pulled up on the road shoulder and asked an onlooker to call the funeral home. He was tall and spoke in a commanding voice.
“I’ll put on my waders, and we’ll do what we need to do, but we need to respect that,” he said before wading out, waist-deep, into snake-infested waters to push the bodies to shore.
Here in the damp purlieus of Charleston, it is disturbingly common to see the dead rise too early, buried shallow above a high water table and buoyed by coastal floods.
I recently read a South Carolina ghost story that gave me flashbacks to the disarray of the 2015 flood. It’s the title story from The Doctor to the Dead: Grotesque Legends & Folk Tales of Old Charleston, a 1946 collection by John Bennett.
The story follows the life and career of Dr. Heinrich Karl Ryngo, a seminarian turned medical doctor who sees two caskets unearthed during one such flood:
One look at the contents of the two caskets was enough to convince the young physician of the justice of his course. It had become imperative upon him that he should leave the cure of the living and turn his knowledge and his skill to the comforting of those who lie in misery in the grave.
He spoke of this with the good old priest: “Since that is the state of the dead, who can doubt their desire to rise?”
“My son,” said the old priest, perturbed by the young man’s stubborn insistence, “until the world rolls backward at the Judgment, the dead may not return.”
“The Doctor to the Dead” purports to be an old piece of Charleston lore, albeit with heavy embellishments by the author. Bennett intended it as a capstone to his own legacy, published near the end of his life after a protracted struggle with depression, rejection, and addiction.
The story wasn’t regarded as a literary gem when Bennett first presented it to Charleston socialites. They mostly found it repulsive.
But whatever its artistic merit or folkloric bona fides, the story is quintessentially Charlestonian, the sort of thing you are likely to hear on a guided ghost tour of the city’s well-preserved graveyards, churches, and homes.
It is also an essential story for understanding Bennett, a major figure in what is now remembered as the Charleston Renaissance. Seeking to revive traditions and folkways that he feared were close to disappearing, Bennett spent years of his own life ministering to the dead, in a sense.
The story goes like this: Ryngo, a low-born son of the College of Charleston’s gatekeeper, enters the good graces of high society and makes it through medical school with flying colors. But he soon abandons the practice of medicine and dedicates himself to the needs of the dead.
Ryngo fleshes out his theories in a speech at a medical conference, referencing traditional Jewish teachings about an indestructible luz or “seed” bone (possibly the sacrum or another spinal bone) that can be used to resurrect and regrow a human body. The conference ends in an uproar.
He starts spending his nights in a cemetery embracing the ghost of a young woman, only to lose her forever when he holds onto her too long as the sun rises.
“Now comes the droll part of the story,” Bennett announces:
Hein Ryngo never saw her face again. But he swore by the glittering throne of God he would call her spirit back from the dead to reanimate the lifeless dust …
He withdrew from earthly fellowship, and abandoned humanity. And gave himself up utterly to the pursuit of the departed soul beyond the borderland of Death.
Ryngo cloisters himself in an implausibly narrow house on King Street, refusing to even let a chimneysweep inside. He glowers down at people from his third-floor balcony, shrouding himself in the black funeral drapes of the South Carolina politician John C. Calhoun. He buys, and later sells, a young black woman at a slave auction without much explanation.
Once a respected man of medicine, he begins to completely repulse his neighbors. Women refuse to walk in the shadow of his house; shopkeepers abandon his side of the street. People begin to see strange movements in his windows at night.
The authorities finally storm his house, where they find a legion of cockroaches and the corpse of an unidentified young woman. They nearly corner Ryngo on his balcony, but he steps off, spreads his cloak — and rises on a gust of wind. The story ends with Ryngo circling high above the city “like a soaring buzzard.” The narrow house burns down, the story goes, in the Great Fire of 1861, leaving no trace.
Bennett’s own story ran parallel to Ryngo’s in some ways, as recorded in the historian and author Harlan Greene’s Mr. Skylark: John Bennett and the Charleston Renaissance (University of Georgia Press, 2001).
Born in 1865 in Chillicothe, Ohio, Bennett had no connections to the plantation heirs who dominated the Charleston social scene. But he married into a wealthy old Charleston family and gained some local notoriety thanks to his status as a nationally renowned children’s author. His 1897 book Master Skylark was a bestseller and critical success, and the city’s various poetry and social clubs welcomed him in, although seemingly at arm’s length.
Like Dr. Ryngo, Bennett pursued a set of obsessions that eventually alienated him from his benefactors. Reeling from the commercial failure of subsequent books after Master Skylark, and kicking an addiction to the cocaine-laced drugs his doctors prescribed, he threw himself into the cataloguing of Charleston folk tales.
He was particularly interested in the stories told by African Americans, and he started befriending sources such as “Francis Nipson, soldier of fortune, and sanitary inspector of the city of Charleston.” He learned a little bit of Gullah, the creole spoken by descendants of West Africans on the Carolina coast, and published what may have been the first scholarly article on the language in 1908.
Bennett had a paternalistic interest in what he called the “primitive” culture of Gullah-Geechee people and black Charlestonians, but contemporary accounts suggest he did win the trust of some prominent black leaders at the time.
“If not completely unaffected by prejudice, Bennett was not totally blinded by it … Bennett had listened to the tales for their sheer wonder and strangeness and beauty,” Greene wrote.
Like Dr. Ryngo, Bennett made a splash with his first public presentation. And like Ryngo, he was reviled for it.
Speaking to the Federation of Women’s Clubs in the St. John’s Hotel in February 1908, Bennett titled his program “Grotesque Legends of Charleston.”
“He chose words to send a chill up the spines of the ladies,” Greene wrote.
Bennett wrote privately that he felt he’d gotten a cold reception: Only one man shook his hand after his lecture, and no women offered him a compliment. His worst fears were confirmed the next day when he read the reviews in the News and Courier and Evening Post, the arbiters of white elite opinion in Charleston.
A headline in the afternoon edition described Bennett’s talk as “a startlingly realistic exposition of Revolting Savage Fancies.” Editor Tom Waring tore into Bennett:
Mr. John Bennett’s paper was a piece of bizarre, wonderfully imaginative, forcibly literal and, it must be said, inappropriate literary exposition … It was rich — not to say reeking — with the distorted and horrible and forbidden fancies of the savage nature still latent in the negro … It was realistic in the extreme and to many it was positively revolting.
Two anonymous “Charleston ladies” delivered withering bon mots in letters to the editor the same day.
“By all means, let us be ignorant,” one wrote. “It is not necessary to go to the sewer for information.”
Bennett had planned to use his talk as a launching pad for his next book project, a collection of folk stories. But without the support of the local press or the novel-buying gentry, his confidence faltered and he fell into another bout of major depression and drug addiction, according to Greene.
Holed up in the third-floor study of his house on Legare Street, he wrote, “Sons, Old Charleston is gone … a strange loud day rolls in.”
It is possible to read The Doctor to the Dead through a sociologist’s lens, as a record of local folklore filtered through the gaze of a white outsider.
Two stories in the collection, “Daid Aaron I and II,” record some early approximations of Gullah and Geechee speech. Stories such as “The Army of the Dead” speak to white antebellum nostalgia and the Lost Cause mythology that took root after the Civil War. (Fittingly, Bennett’s mother-in-law served in 1903 as national president of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which did more than perhaps any other group to advance the revisionist history of Confederate apologists in school textbooks.)
But there is another way to appraise The Doctor to the Dead and its author. The great Georgia woman of letters Flannery O’Connor laid out her approach to such literature in her 1960 paper “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction.”
She started by rejecting the materialist orthodoxies of literary criticism in her time: “They associate the only legitimate material for long fiction with the movement of social forces, with the typical, with fidelity to the way things look and happen in normal life.”
By rejecting social realism, O’Connor asserted, some Southern writers of her era were reclaiming a romantic tradition in hopes of conveying “an experience of mystery itself.” The sort of fiction they wrote tended to be “wild,” “violent,” and “comic”:
Whenever I'm asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological …
Approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn't convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature. In any case, it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature. (emphasis mine)
Bennett nearly lost his writing career because he insisted on writing about “freaks,” grotesqueries, and macabre ceremonies. According to Greene, who reviewed 30 linear feet of Bennett’s papers for his biography, Bennett never fully recovered after the brutal rejection of 1908.
Thirty-eight years passed before he finally completed and published The Doctor to the Dead. The book debuted in 1946, shortly after Bennett’s 81st birthday, as he was fighting off another doldrum. He doubted his place in the literary scene, had fallen prey to another bout of what he called his “Scottish” melancholy, had lost most of his hearing, and was suffering from dermatitis of the hands that made it difficult to write. But the book was finally out in the world — and it found a receptive audience.
“These stories, macabre and always grotesque, are highly poetic and imaginative,” marveled a critic in the New Yorker.
“The collection … of folktales of Old Charleston proves that the hand of the seasoned maestro has lost none of its cunning or versatility,” wrote a Chicago Sun reviewer.
Finally, close to death, he had called old spirits back to life.