Friday, October 31, 2014

The Haunted Villa of Biloxi



Born in 1864, John Leisk Tait, Jr. was the son of a Scottish emigrant from the Shetland Islands. When his father first came to the United States (at a very young age), his family settled in Joliet, Illinois, where they were farmers. At age 19, John L., Sr. went to California, as many young men did at the time, to find his fortune in the gold fields and was a miner for six years. After returning to Illinois for several years, he relocated to Oregon and established a prosperous, 400-acre farm near Creswell (right). It was here that the “hardy Scotch-Norseman” raised his four children, including his oldest son, John L., Jr. Unlike his father, however, John apparently did want to become a farmer. Instead, he pursued a career as a writer, where he achieved some success. By his early thirties, John Leisk Tait had been published in a number of magazines and periodicals, including the Pacific Monthly, the New Age Magazine, the American Freemason, Bob Taylor’s Magazine and the World To-Day. His contributions included poetry, works of fiction, treatises on Freemasonry and the Great War (he was apparently an active Mason), and a historical piece on the burning of the steamboat Sultana. He was also a newspaperman. His longest stint in the newspaper business was in Memphis, where for fourteen years he was a reporter, assistant editor and Sunday feature editor for the Commercial Appeal, after which he became a copy and service manager for the Ruebel-Brown advertising agency in St. Louis.

In 1907, Tait (left) published a ghost story set in Biloxi in the San Francisco Chronicle. Five years later, on April 6, 1912, the story was reprinted in the Gulfport Daily Herald. The newspaper, as a lead to the story, reported that "the story of the haunted villa of Biloxi is one that holds the interest of the most casual reader, whether he believes in haunted houses or not. The villa is situated a few miles west of Biloxi and has in recent years been purchased and remodeled and extensively repaired and is today one of the handsomest residences on the Coast. It is occupied and needless to say, no one loses much sleep these days about the haunts. However, in the old days the story was quite generally credited and there was a genuine fear among the less educated contingent of the occupants of the house." In closing, the Herald praised the author, saying that Tait related the story of the haunted villa with "picturesque language, which reminds one somewhat of the style of Poe's Fall of the House of Usher." Although the paper seemed familiar with the house, there are no other clues in the story about its location other than being known as the “Brownwell” house. A cursory look at genealogical information from the period doesn’t reveal any “Brownwell” families in the Biloxi area and there’s no record (as yet at least) for a “Col. Bienville Brownwell.” However, there was a prominent lumberman by the name of Horace Brownell who apparently owned a summer home on the Coast at the time (he was the manager of the Berwick Lumber Company in New Orleans). Whether Tait simply borrowed and then altered the Brownell name for his story or if there is any factual basis for the house is unknown.  In the San Francisco Chronicle story, there is a photo of a house as an inset of a larger illustration. Whether this is a photo of an actual house on the Coast or is a generic “old house” image is also unknown. Regardless, I hope you’ll find the story entertaining…

THE HAUNTED VILLA OF BILOXI

Weird in its Southern beauty, the little town of Biloxi lies sleeping upon the edge of the great gulf at the southmost reach of the State of Mississippi.

Biloxi is an aristocratic old place, whose ancestral mansions, placed in wide gardens along narrow, shadelined trees, have each a history in itself. It was settled first of all the Gulf towns, so long ago that the date has blended into the personality of the old, cuirassed and helmeted cavalier of Spain and France who were led thither under Sauville, a kinsman of Bienville and Iberville, and who were impelled by the quaint and quiet beauty of the spot to found there a settlement. And it has ever since been a favored abiding place, for its waters teem with wild fowl and fish, and its shores luxuriate in subtropic fruits and vegetables. Moreover, it has always been the delight of mankind to dwell beside the sea, and in all lands, soon or late, the wealthier classes have utilized the power which their wealth conferred upon them to appropriate the more comely sea views for residence sites and this was true of the wealthier families of South Mississippi. They flocked to Biloxi first as a winter resort and then as a place of perpetual residence and the streets of the quaint old town are lined with substantial mansions the architecture of a century ago. It was here at Beauvoir, that Jefferson Davis retired after the close of the Civil War.

Less than three miles distant from Beauvoir, about seven miles from Biloxi, lies the haunted villa known in olden days as the Brownwell place. It must have been a stately building. Ruined and desolated as it stands today, its long, low galleries and extensive wings bear mute witness to its first estate. It lies deep within a thick wood well back from the road and not visible until one has penetrated a hundred yards within the encircling forest of gloomy live oaks which shroud it day and night. No bird sings within those trees; no rabbit darts from the hedge and frisks across your pathway as you approach; and however noisy the sea birds' clamor, not even the untamed courier of the deep dare hover over its gloomy recesses. Noises are there indeed, but they are noises from which the living shrink and in which no living creature has a lot or part.

The Brownwell place was built before the revolution by a family of that name. It was in its day the handsomest villa for miles along the Coast. It was the home of hospitality and the scene of unbounded gayety. The Brownwells were a cultured people, with a fortune adequate to the gratification of their tastes and their friendship was irrefutable evidence of social worth.

So they lived for years and then, as so often happens this proud house found its numbers reduced almost to the point of extinction. There remained only two, father and daughter. The last of the Brownwells in the male line was Bienville Brownwell. He had married when quite young, and his wife died almost immediately after the birth of their only child, whom the sorrowing father christened Dolores. With this child he took up his permanent abode at the Brownwell place and there devoted himself to her with an utter abandonment of all other interests in life.

Dolores, as she grew up, developed wonderful musical talent. Her skill as a pianist became the marvel and delight of all who knew her, but it was for her father that she played her best--on the moonlight evenings when the two sat alone in their beautiful home the motherless girl poured out in music the fullness of her heart to the saddened man who had been both father and mother to her and passers-by paused to listen and to wonder at the sweetness of the music and the indefinable thing of the eerie that pervaded it. Bienville Brownville raised a regiment and let it to the field, its first colonel. One of his captains was a young fellow who the night before they marched, stood with the tremulous Dolores within the piano room and told her father of their plighted love; and he fell, pierced through the heart, with a bullet in their first engagement. Less than a month later a fragment of a shell carried away Colonel Brownwell's right arm, and he returned wan and maimed to spend the remainder of his days comforting his stricken child.

The two were inseparable. If they had been devoted to each other before, they were doubly so now. The girl devoted herself to her father with an attachment which was redoubled because of her grief for the gallant lover who had fallen at his side; and the father, grieving for her grief, lost all interest in life, saving that which clung about his motherless daughter. I said they were inseparable. But there was one thing which sometimes drove the father fairly panting with pain out of her sight to wrestle alone with his God for hours. There were spells, nights when the moon was fitfully veiled and revealed though flying clouds and when the wind made mournful music in the pines, when she flew to her piano and poured out the anguish of her heart in such strains as mortal scarcely ever hears in this world. All her heartbreak, all her loneliness, all her grief and bitter anguish wailed through its measures and sobbed out upon the night and he who loved her would arise and flee to the beach, where the beauty, and not the pain, came to him; and there he would wander for hours, until the music ceased and he returned to the house to find her weeping in wild abandonment of sometimes lying in a dead faint beside her silent instrument. All the next day she would go about silently, with great dark eyes staring straight ahead of her and her face white and deathlike. Gradually she would yield to her father's tenderness, and once more take up, with a wan smile, the burden of her duties toward him.

One night there came an electrical storm of unusual violence, lashing trees and whipping the surf until the coast was strewn with destruction. In the midst of it there came upon the girl the spirit of longing for the dead lover, and she flew to her piano for consolation.

Never before had she played as she played that night. Forgotten was the war of the elements in the mad frenzy of the music as the woman's soul poured its anguish out on the wings of the wind, over the raging sea and up into the face of the black sky. Her father stood transfixed at her matchless, pallid beauty and the unspeakable pathos of her playing. Then, wrapping his coat about him, he left the house and sought the beach, unable to endure the sight of her suffering.

For an hour she played. Then the spell passed and she arose and went out upon the verandah, looking with unseeing eyes to seaward, her white robe fluttering in the storm, waiting longing for her father's return. There was a crash, the heavens were blinded with an intense flash of living fire and blackness and rolling thunders filled the earth and the heavens. But above it all she had seen her father’s form and for one instant had heard his voice. She saw his one arm flung wildly aloft and heard him calling her name. She plunged out into the night, calling him as she ran. She made her way through the storm to the beach calling incessantly. He was not to be found. She returned to the house and ran wildly from room to room calling his name and imploring him to return to her. The crash of the thunder was her only answer.

Next morning they found him. The sea had washed him ashore at the foot of the little pier which they used as a boat landing. There was no mark of violence upon him. The manner of his death remained a mystery. Probably he stepped too near the beach in the darkness and slipped into the angry waters and was unable, because of the loss of his arm, to regain the shore, and so perished.

The daughter's grief was indescribable. They buried him under the big magnolia in the family cemetery, and her waking hours were spent beside his grave. She continued to dwell alone in the desolated villa, the old Negro servants her only guardians.

Five days after the funeral her old nurse ran wildly down the shell road one night to the nearest neighbor, imploring him to come at once. He found her mistress dead upon the floor beside her piano, lying in a pool of blood. She had been stabbed in the back as she sat playing. Death had been instantaneous. Her murderer escaped, leaving no clue to his identity. After her burial the property passed to a distant branchy of the family, to people who had other interests binding them to a distant section. The villa was at once advertised for rent.

It was eagerly taken by one of the leading merchants of Jacksonville, Florida, who was spending a season with his family in the neighborhood of Biloxi. They remained three days and nights before moving out and offering the place for rent once more. Another tenant jumped at the bargain, and relinquished it as quickly. Repeated efforts were made to find a permanent tenant, but without success. Some left without explanation or excuse. Others assigned various and elaborate reasons for their sudden departure. A few boldly declared that the house was haunted and that they could not live there on that account.

Gradually these stories assumed definite form. A sound of piano playing, infinitely sad and infinitely sweet was heard during the nights emanating from the piano room. The voice of a woman weeping rang through the house and occasionally the words, "Father Oh, Father!" were heard by the horror stricken tenants. On stormy nights even when there was no electrical disturbances outside, the house would be filled with the glare of lightning and the crashing of thunder, and through the unlighted rooms the form of a frantic woman, clad in white, rushed with wild calls. Anon came the sound of a blow as if against a human form, the crash of a player's hands upon the keys of the piano, a heavy fall and silence.

Meanwhile the beautiful villa and its grounds were suffering decay. The fences were out of repair; the shrubbery was no longer trimmed; the marks of age and weathering upon the house were no longer removed, and the place passed rapidly into a stage of dilapidation, which made it shunner on that account, no less than because of its gruesome reputation. About this time there came a tenant who, to the surprise of everybody about the place, not only took up residence in the haunted villa, but remained there. This was a widow with two children, a boy of 12 and a girl of a year or two younger. She was attended by two Negro servants an old man of all work and his wife. They lived quite alone, entertained no one and made no calls.

Mrs. Hitchcock, for that was the name of which the widow gave to the agent from whom she rented the place, devoted herself to her children. The boy was manifestly an invalid. At first he was seen about the place by casual passers, his great, dark eyes and wistful bearing seeming to yearn for the companionship which he fled if it were offered. Later he was observed in an invalid's chair, wheeled about the walks by the old Negro man. One day there was a quiet funeral and the boy's emaciated body was borne out from the desolate villa to its last resting place beneath the magnolias.

Meanwhile there had been rumors, subdued at first but ugly and increasing in volume, about Mrs. Hitchcock and her household. There are some words in the English language at which the hearer starts to back against, and one of these had been mentioned in connection with them. It was the word "leprosy." The morning following the burial of the boy the mother received a call from authorities. She met them at the door. She had observed their approach through the live oak bordered avenue. Had she not watched for them through weary months with eyes that grew dim with watching?

"We come to search your place for a case of leprosy" said the leader of the posse. The woman went white to the lips, but she answered evenly. "Let me see your warrant." The officers fell back discomfited. "By George! We never looked after that. We didn't think you'd object," answered the leader. "Nor will I, if you are properly authorized to make such a search," answered the widow. "We'll have to come again," said the officer, and led his posse back to town.

Next morning they did come again, but there was no one about the villa to object to their search. Its late inmates had disappeared completely. Nothing remained to prove that they have ever been there, except a smoldering heap of ashes in the yard, where some papers and refuse had been burned, and a newly made grave under the magnolias. Yes, there was another bit of evidence--a note was found upon the piano in the front room. It was from the widow, and contained her pathetic story, and confirmation, if confirmation were needed, of the tales that clustered about the haunted villa. It was brief, but it was convincing. It read:

"You need make no search for me or mine, for before you see this we will be beyond reach and no effort will enable you to trace us. My two children contracted the leprosy, presumably from a Chinese servant. It manifested itself in them two years after their father died. I have fled and hidden with them from one place to another, fighting to prevent their being taken from me and sent to the leper colony. We have remained quiet here longer than elsewhere, owing to the fearful character which has been attributed to this house; and, believe me, it is all and worse than popular belief has painted it. I am convinced that the terror they inspired in my son hastened his death."

It is needless to state that the most determined search was instituted for the fugitives, but they were never traced. Where they went will probably never be known. But from that day a new and more terrible fear infused itself into the popular villa, which remains today, utterly neglected and shunner of all mankind.






Photo and Image Sources:
From The Illustrated History of Lane County, Oregon (1884)
http://trees.ancestry.com
From the Gulfport Herald, April 6, 1912
From the San Francisco Chronicle, February 16, 1907
Ghost piano: http://terrorofyouth.blogspot.com