In the gorgeous southern historic city of Savannah, Georgia sits a stately home surrounded by large oaks. The green shutters are the eyelids of the home, constantly watching the street below since it was completed in 1819. Located on historic Abercorn Street at the northeastern corner of Oglethorpe Square, the Owens-Thomas House was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976. It remains one of the nation’s finest examples of English Regency Architecture.
But a secret lie beneath its unassuming exterior, when renovations in the 1990s uncovered and restored one of the oldest and best preserved urban slave quarters in the entire American South. If you’d like to get up-close and personal with the spirits of Savannah, book a ghost tour with us to explore the historic city for yourself!
This significant and architecturally important home was begun in 1816 and was finished just three years later in 1819. The Owens-Thomas House was designed by famed English architect William Jay. The home’s plans were drawn while Jay was still in England. According to Jay’s letters that he sent to local workers before his arrival, the home was to be aesthetically similar to those in Bath, England, where he lived.
This is evident of the Bath stone that was used in the construction of the home as well as its sophisticated detailing. It brought the ornamental architectural detailing from Bath to the newly successful Southern city.
After its completion, the home was finished and was the new home of shipping merchant and slave trader Richard Richardson and his wife, Frances. The Richardsons moved into the home with their six children and nine enslaved men, women, and children in January of 1819. The Richardsons saw steady decreases in their prosperity over the following three years including the financial Panic of 1819, a Yellow Fever epidemic, a fire that destroyed half the city, as well as the untimely death of Frances and two of their children. By 1822, Richardson decided to sell the family home and move to Louisiana where he had family and business interests. He had been shipping enslaved people, mostly children, from Savannah to New Orleans for years.
By 1824, the Bank of the United States owned the home and started leasing it to Mary Maxwell as a boarding house. The Marquis de Lafayette was a guest of Mary Maxwell when he visited Savannah in March of 1825 as part of his tour of the United States for the 50th anniversary of the American Revolution.
The mansion was purchased in 1830 by local politician and attorney George Welshman Owens fro $10,000. Owens moved in with his wife and their six children in 1833. Over the years, Owens kept nine to fifteen enslaved people on the property and held almost 400 men, women and children in bondage on his numerous plantations. The Owens family kept the home for several decades until Owens’ granddaughter, Margaret Thomas, willed the home to the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences as the south’s oldest arm museum.
The home is noted for its cast iron detailing and acanthus scroll supports. William Jay was also the architect to other notable Savannah landmarks such as the Gordon-Low House, Telfair House, and Scarborough House.
The Hidden Slave Quarters
A focus of the home is the carriage house and the history of the enslaved people that lived there. During the renovation of the carriage house in the 1990s, the owners of the site discovered one of the best preserved urban slave quarters in America.
The ceiling of the slave quarters is painted ‘haint blue,’ which was customarily used in the Gullah culture to deter malevolent spirits and ghosts. The belief was that spirits cannot cross over water, so the hue was meant to match it and keep ghosts out of the building. It’s notable as the largest amount of haint blue paint in North America. This two-story structure was composed of three rooms on each level. Nine to fifteen enslaved people lived and worked on the site at any given time between 1819 and the end of the American Civil War.
Ghosts of the Owens-Thomas House
The Owens-Thomas House is considered to be one of the most active haunted locations in Savannah. Several spirits are reported on the property, and guests as well as staff have reported strange phenomena when visiting or working at the home and slave quarters.
Phantom footsteps, objects moving all on their own, the feeling of being watched… you know, the usual. However, there are a few spirits here that are unique from the rest.
The ghost of Margaret Thomas, the home’s last known owner, is seen as a full-bodied apparition and is known only as the ‘Lady In Grey.’ She’s usually seen wearing a large hat and grey shawl. Museum staff spot her at night before they close up for the evening strolling around the garden. They say her deathbed is still inside of the home, which is why her spirit tends to linger.
Another commonly reported haunting is that of a disheveled man from the 1830s. He usually hangs around in the parlor, creepily watching guests come and go. He doesn’t move unless he decided to walk away and vanish into one of the walls. Supposedly the wall he goes through used to be the entrance to a guest bedroom.
A phantom smoker also calls the Owens-Thomas house home. He’s seen mostly during the later hours of the evening — he lights a cigarette, takes a puff, and then disappears. On one truly spooky occasion, a tour guide heard the striking of a match right behind her and smelled tobacco. When she turned to see, no one was there.
An especially boisterous spirit dwells in the dining room of the Owens-Thomas House. The museum staff are charged with organizing the dining room table every night before closing. Sometimes, staff will find that someone trashes the room overnight. The chairs are pulled out, the silverware scattered… definitely not the prim and proper setup that they left. They describe it as if someone had a large meal and didn’t clean up after themselves.
Jim Williams, the famous Savannah preservationist and the man who murdered his lover in the Mercer-Williams House, had reported a couple of inexplicable happenings in the home as well. He had two friends rent a room on the second floor sometime in the 1960s. The three were having a drink in the front room of the home when a strange man entered the back room of the house. He seemed frustrated, waiting for something. He walked through the couch and passed in front of Williams, close enough for him to see sweat beads on his forehead. A week later, Williams’ friend encountered the spirit once again, prompting him to leave the home and stay somewhere else. This specific spirit has not been reported since.
Savannah – A City Of Spirits
The Owens-Thomas House sits on Abercorn Street, which is the site of more than a few haunted locations. Check out the home at 432 Abercorn, with a history of horrific tragedy, Yellow Fever, and murder. A century after, a gruesome triple-murder rocked the city.