Monday, May 8, 2017

Charleston's Pirate House--A Place Where The Reality Morphed Into The Legend

Charleston's antiquity runs as deep as its harbor waters and its tales are as tall as the steeple of St. Phillips on Church Street. As one of the oldest cities in America, it is a place where reality and legend walk the same streets declaring a timeless story about the lives of its progeny and their hallowed structures. A place where fact and fiction have been skillfully blurred to the delight of those who come to bask in its charm and grace. This is true of one of Charleston's oldest townhouses located at 143 and 145 Church Street.

It was built by Huguenot merchant, Alexander Peronneau, as a double tenement around 1740--likely after Charleston's great fire of 1740. The material used in its construction was Bermuda stone placed on a brick foundation--Bermuda stone was widely used in the construction of early Charleston. The city's old fortification wall was made from Bermuda stone as well as the 1769 seawall that was probably destroyed in the 1800s by a hurricane.


American scholar, Justin Schwebler, stated in an interview printed in The Royal Gazette, "The archives here have a very good history of how the stone got here. It appears that the stone would be cut in quarries in Bermuda, before being taken down to the Turks and Caicos, where large quantities of salt would also be loaded on to the ship. Then both materials would be brought up to Charleston, where the stone would be used for buildings and walls, and the salt for food preservation."


In the late eighteenth century, the double tenement was owned by craftsman and planter, Paul Smiser. Next, Mrs. Goodwyn Rhett took possession of the property. In 1928, Mrs. Rhett restored the home to a single residence with the help of Thomas Pinckney, a local African-American builder. At this time, the outbuildings located behind the primary residence were constructed using salvaged brick from the former Shepheard's Tavern on Broad Street, also called The Corner Tavern, which was demolished in that same year.

It is believed after the restoration of the house rumors began to circulate claiming pirates lived there in its early days and used an underground tunnel system located in its basement that was connected to the waterfront of the Battery. The rumors stated the tunnels were the primary means of smuggling and escape for the pirate visitors and at the historic Dock Street Theatre, two blocks down Church Street, evidence of the tunnel's existence can be found underneath its stage--an opening into a sand-filled passageway. During extensive renovations and the redirection of Charleston's sewage systems in the 1930's, the tunnel was filled with sand, as the story tells. One rumor claims Blackbeard's legendary cache of gold is buried somewhere within the tunnel or in the basement of the house.

The name Pirate House became attached to the address as a result of these stories, but search as you may, no legitimate evidence can be found supporting such claims. The Dock Street Theatre is peculiarly silent as to the rumored opening underneath its stage leading to a sand-filled tunnel. None-the-less, there is a plausible explanation as to how the truth, by way of a slight variation, gave birth to the rumor that grew into the legend.

Extensive renovations, including heavy disturbances to the grounds, were performed on the property of the Dock Street Theatre in the 1930's. In a report presented to the city of Charleston called "The Dock Street Theatre: Archeological Discovery and Exploration," evidence of an opening being discovered is corroborated. It states, "Visible in the northwest corner of the interior courtyard, adjacent to the exterior wall of the theater building and a brick property wall, was an opening in the concrete flooring of the courtyard, excavated to a depth of approximately 3' below the concrete surface. A rectangular brick foundation, roughly 6' north/south by 8' east/west, was exposed in the 10' x 10' opening." Construction workers reported that three courses of brick were removed from the foundation to complete the pit excavation. The foundation, visible in remnant yellow sand fill, was a single header (brick laid with the narrow end exposed) wide. The size, configuration, and location of the foundation suggested a privy."

As to the privy's dating, the piece goes on to say, "Moreover, the location and possible association with the standing structure suggested the building could be associated with the early 19th century. However, the artifacts recovered during the pit excavation included five green glass bottles typical of the mid-18th century. Additional artifacts collected during the pit excavation and during the archaeologist's visit date to the 18th century. No early 19th century materials were recovered." The 18th century puts it during the pirate years of Charleston. So--and this is my own assumption, change one word of the summary, tunnel for privy, and you have the legend to captivate the masses. You have to admit, it does make for better story telling.

As to Blackbeard's treasure being buried in the basement of the house or in the tunnels, there is no concrete evidence to be found anywhere in the archives of Charleston to support such a presumption. In fact, it is more likely Blackbeard never set foot on the city's cobbled streets nor drank at its taverns, although, their paths did cross in May of 1718, when Blackbeard's flotilla of ships blockaded the port of Charles Town, stopped and ransacked nine vessels, took Samuel Wragg--a member of the Council of the Province of Carolina--along with other prominent Charles Town citizens hostage, and at one point near the end of the ordeal, entered the harbor of Charleston and threatened the city. Blackbeard was in need of medical supplies. The affair from start to finish lasted many days.

As the story goes, a Mr. Marks and two pirates were put into a boat and sent into Charleston to collect the drugs. While in Charleston, the two pirates and Mr. Marks became separated. The two pirates went on a drinking binge with friends, but not likely at the infamous Pirate House. It didn't exist until 1740, although some say it was built in 1704, which then would have made it possible. After days had passed, the pirates were found drunk and returned to the ships with Mr. Marks carrying the demanded drugs. The hostages were released and Blackbeard sailed away with whatever treasure he possessed. Through the whole affair, Blackbeard remained on the ships.


















With a history stretching back to 1740, it is hard to say with any surety who visited or what happened at the double tenement at 143 and 145 Church Street. The fact it has survived fire, hurricane, earthquake, and change all these many years is a testimony to its resilience. Despite contrary facts, it will forever be known as the Pirate House and the rumor will prevail with those who choose to believe. And to those who choose otherwise, in Charleston, even the truth is legendary.

 

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