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Gray Man: Pawleys Island’s local spirit is among state’s best known ghosts
By Jackie R. Broach
His identity is anyone’s guess, but keep an eye out on the coast of Pawleys Island when there’s a big storm rolling in. That’s when they say the Gray Man, arguably South Carolina’s most famous ghost, shows himself.
Local businesses have been named in his honor and he’s the subject of artwork, books and most recently a movie.
“There are more rumors and stories about the Gray Man than anything in South Carolina,” said Sherman Carmichael of Johnsonville, author of an upcoming book, “Legends and Lore of South Carolina,” that features two versions of the Gray Man story. “You can pick up 10 books on South Carolina legends and probably eight or nine have something about the Gray Man.”
In the recent movie, “The Grey Man,” filmed by a Charleston area production company, the ghost is something to be feared — a malevolent spirit who haunts an old plantation home as well as the beach, doing harm to those who invade his territory. The film was released on DVD this week and will be screened this weekend at the Strand Cinema, with the director and cast members on hand to meet with guests and sign autographs on Friday at 7 p.m.
That Grey Man doesn’t have much in common with the one of local lore. The traditional Gray Man is benevolent, showing up before a major storm as a warning to the living and an omen of safety for those who see him.
“Everyone that has come in contact with him says he warns them to leave the island, that danger is approaching. Those that heeded the warning of this helpful spirit and left the island have returned after the hurricane to find their homes undamaged. Homes on both sides, front and back have been destroyed, but theirs were left standing,” Carmichael wrote in his book, which comes out Aug. 1.
There are a number of variations on the legend, but most of the tales seem to lead back to three or four main versions, Carmichael found while researching the legend.
“Every time you start down one road, you end up back with one of them,” he said. Most say the Gray Man was first seen in 1822, before there were houses built on Pawleys Island. He is said to have last been sighted in 1989, just before Hurricane Hugo.
One of the main tales says the Gray Man is the ghost of a young man who was caught in quick sand while traveling from Charleston to see the girl he loved. The unfortunate young man and his horse died before help could arrive and his spirit has haunted the shore ever since, looking for the woman he loved.
Stories have claimed the Gray Man is everything from the spirit of the island’s namesake, Percival Pawley, to that of Edward Teach, better known as Black Beard. Some sources claim the Gray Man to be the ghost of Plowden Charles Jeannerette Weston or another member of his family. Weston was the original owner of the home on Pawleys Island that is now the Pelican Inn. Locals say the previous owner of the inn, the late Eileen Weaver, claimed to have seen him there, as have others who stayed at the inn.
Charles Joyner, an author and professor of Southern history and culture at Coastal Carolina University, has done more extensive research on the ghost of Alice Flagg than the Gray Man. However, he is familiar with a written account of the Gray Man legend that names Weston as the ghost and has stayed at the Pelican Inn while working on another project, in the room where the Gray Man is said to appear.
“They enjoyed putting me in that room,” he said. “I had a tape recorder with me because I was recording [interviews with] the children and grandchildren of slaves. I had it ready if the Gray Man had any desire to contact me.”
The ghost didn’t show himself or give any hint he was present.
Joyner said the Gray Man legend appears to have originated in print in the 1940s with the publication of a book of ghost stories by Julian Bollick. It doesn’t seem to have been widely told before that.
“I don’t know anybody who has actually collected a version of that from oral tradition, but folklore is the kind of thing that used to mean people knew something because they heard it from family and friends and no other source,” Joyner said. “It’s almost impossible for that to exist anymore in our world. With TV and computers anybody can know most of the folklore of the world if they want to.”
Joyner also hasn’t found any oral sources cited in early printed versions of the Gray man story.
“Of course, that may just be an omission,” he said. “What we don’t know, we don’t know.”
Joyner said he has tried to find the names of people who have seen the Gray Man, but he hasn’t had any luck. There seems to be a new flurry of stories every year when hurricane season starts, he said. The Gray Man got national attention just after Hurricane Hugo when Jim and Clara Moore were interviewed on “Unsolved Mysteries.” They told the show they had seen the Gray Man during an afternoon walk before the storm. Jim raised his hand to say hello, he said, and the man disappeared. The houses around theirs were destroyed by the storm, but they returned home after the storm to find things just as they left them.
“When he appears to you, you’re very blessed and fortunate. Your house will be saved,” Genevieve “Sister” Peterkin of Murrells Inlet told the TV show. She recounted a story about one house that not only survived a hurricane after the owners saw the Gray Man, but the beach towels left on the porch weren’t even blown away.
The Moores and Peterkin have since passed away.
Carmichael said he has talked with one person who claims to have seen the Gray Man first-hand, but that person refused to allow his name or the experience to be used. He was afraid people would think he’s a “kook,” Carmichael said.
However, there seem to be plenty who know someone who had an encounter with the Gray Man.
R.L. Port said his father claimed to have seen the Gray Man before Hurricane Hazel in 1954. Port has never seen the ghost himself, but remembers his father was on the south end of the island fishing ahead of the storm. When he came home, he said he had seen the Gray Man, though Port can’t remember any details of the description.
Curtis Whittington, a Pawleys Island area furniture maker, recounted a story he heard from a friend, the late Dickie Crayton. According to Whittington, Crayton and a date were walking on the beach with another couple when the ghost was seen.
“If I remember correctly, it was just after the sun went down,” Whittington said. “He and the others saw a figure he thought was the Gray Man. It was floating above the beach.”
Whittington doesn’t remember if the sighting was before a storm, but Crayton said the apparition wore a long coat and had no legs. He isn’t sure how old Crayton was at the time.
Vida Miller, owner of Gray Man Gallery, said she chose the name for her business because the shopping center it’s located in was also known as Gray Man when she opened the gallery 32 years ago. She didn’t have any better ideas name wise, so the gallery too took the name of the island’s famous spirit.
The name has led Miller and her employees to entertain many a Gray Man tale over the years.
“I’ve certainly had a lot of customers who have said over the years that they’ve experienced something supernatural,” Miller said. Some claim to have seen the Gray Man while others tell of ghostly encounters with other spirits.
The story Miller most vividly recalls hearing was from a local minister who said he saw the Gray Man. Miller won’t give the minister’s name, but said the man was on the beach on the eve of Hurricane Hugo. It was afternoon, just before a mandatory evacuation was issued.
“The weather was getting a little nasty and it was rainy and misting,” Miller said. “He saw a figure coming toward him.”
It struck him as unusual because he hadn’t passed any others on the beach that day.
“He got ready to speak to him and the figure completely disappeared before his eyes,” Miller recounted. “He said ‘I don’t believe in that sort of thing; just the Holy Ghost,’ but he saw it with his own eyes.”
Miller said she has heard tales of ghostly apparitions on the beach, at the Pelican Inn, and the Tip Top Inn, which no longer exists.
“It’s amazing how many do come in and tell us about the Gray Man,” Miller said.
They also buy Gray Man art.
“It’s pretty popular. He’s more popular than Alice,” she said. “People just don’t seem to know about Alice like they do the Gray Man.”
Though Miller has never seen the Gray Man, she said all the accounts she’s heard from people who say they have have been positive. They have described him as “very friendly and non-threatening.”
Whoever the Gray Man is, “I’m convinced he’s a good spirit,” Miller said.