If you go to any coastal town in the South, you’ll see huge, centuries-old live oaks with limbs covered in Spanish moss. From Myrtle Beach down through Charleston and Savannah, and on into Florida, the huge trees are the last living elements of the Antebellum South. These old sentinels even predate most of the haint that roam through the southern countryside, or rattle chains in the attics of local homes.
Beyond this area, few probably know the story of Alice Riley and her connection to so called Spanish moss. She was the first woman hanged in Georgia for committing the first murder in the colony.
Historically, Alice and her husband, Richard White, arrived on the shores of Georgia in the fall of 1733. They had endured the turbulent voyage from Ireland with 38 other compatriots. Many of them were nearly dead from starvation when the boat docked, but their faith in something better carried them through the misery and deplorable conditions.
Alice and her husband Richard worked as servants for a wealthy Savannah businessman named William Wise. Mr. Wise was tyrant, abusive to both Alice and her husband until one day he was found strangled to death in his home on Hutchinson Island. His head was in a large pail of water with his neckerchief tied around his neckm and his alleged murder was the first reported in the new colony.
It was January 19, 1735 (or March 1, 1734? This story has different versions…and does not depend on me, I’m sorry.)
Of course, Alice and her husband were the prime suspects. They fled Savannah but were caught hiding out on a nearby island and promptly hauled back to the courthouse where they received a speedy trial and an even speedier sentence: both were sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead.
Richard was the first to go to the gallows in Wright Square in downtown Savannah. Alice, being pregnant at the time, was allowed to give birth before taking her fateful trip to the gallows, the logic being that only she had received the death sentence, not her child. Despite she used her last breath to proclaim her innocence, it was to no avail and the hangman carried out the sentence. Alice’s body hung in Wright Square for three days before it was taken down and buried.
It is said that the ghost of Alice Riley haunt Wright Square. She sometimes appears on the evening of January 19 and roams the square for three days searching for her lost child. Depending on the story you heard, her ghost follows pregnant women and mothers with infants, trying desperately to take their babies from them. Or that she was a witch who cursed all of Savannah’s citizens, while some stories say her body was left hanging as it took 3 days for her to die, then one night she mysteriously disappeared from the noose.
In any case, to this day no one knows if she was really innocent or not, but one thing that is known is that trees of Wright Square, unlike all the other trees in Savannah, bear no Spanish moss.
And, according to the legend, Spanish moss will not grow where innocent blood has been spilled….
Images from web