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The Houses that Haunt Atlanta

Published: Tuesday, October 30, 2001

Updated: Saturday, October 10, 2009 11:10

This article appeared in the October 27, 1987 issue of the Signal's Tuesday Magazine, on page 4 and 5.

In the midst of an old but seemingly normal neighborhood in northeast Atlanta, a house looms that even the most skeptical observer might label as “haunted.” With its Victorian-Eastlake style architectures, mansard-roofed tower and surrounding wrought-iron fence, it seems unbelievable that anyone else could live there but the Addams Family. Neighbors even call it “the ghost house.”

The Oakdale Road house looks deserted, but at least the rear portion is occupied by a very friendly Englishwoman, Carol Craig, her husband Robert, an assistant professor of architecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and their eight-year-old son. About the farthest from Gomez, Morticia and Pugsley you can imagine.

Ms. Craig said that several prominent Atlantans had lived in the Smith-Benning House since it was built in 1886, such as Judge Charles Smith (1856-1923), founder of the Edgewood community, and sea captain Augustus Harrison Benning (1840-1904) whose fortune helped to build Atlanta’s first skyscraper, the English-American or Flatiron Building. The house is also listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Bush said she’s never seen or heard a ghost.

Ms. Craig did admit though that she has occasionally felt a “certain presence.”

“I see a shape in one part of the house, a shadow, but my husband thinks it’s quite ridiculous,” she said.

And then there’s the ghost of Godfrey whom Cobb Benning used to talk about. But Ms. Craig added that she had also gotten the impression that Godfrey had only been invented by a little boy as a scapegoat for mischievous pranks.

“I don’t think we have a ghost house,” she said.

The “ghost house” though has attracted a lot of attention. Ms. Craig said that people often drive by and stare at it.

“It annoys me only when they drive in and don’t ask permission to walk around,” she said. “Some of them have been very obnoxious.”

Other attention though, she admitted, has been “kind of fun,” such as having a WSB-TV film crew use the house as a set for a locally-filmed Halloween special “Great Georgia Ghosts II.” Also, she said that many of the people who have stopped to talk to her about the house have been very nice and “polite,” adding that she hoped her house might help people learn to appreciate the value of “preserving old homes rather than knocking them down.”

“Actually, a part of me will be very disappointed when the house gets fixed up on the outside because it has become sort of an institution,” she said.

Not that Atlanta does not have its share of real haunted houses.

In the quiet conformity of Dunwoody, for example, there stands another house with quite a nonconformist reputation. Built around 1870, this house is a lovely old structure with adjoining stable, well and graveyard. These features, however, are not what makes the house unique. What makes Linda and David Chesnut’s house so unusual is that it really is haunted.

Since they moved in 12 years ago, the Chesnuts and a few privileged but bewildered guests have witnessed, among other things, flashing lights in the dining room, singing as if from a choir coming from one of the front rooms, shadowy images walking down corridors and looking out of windows and an antique Bible picking itself up off a table land dropping to the floor.

The house was built around 170 by William Donaldson who reportedly went off to “the war between the states,” as Ms. Chesnut calls it, where he was shot, and then limped all the way home from Virginia. He is buried in the small family cemetery adjacent to the house. According to Ms. Chesnut, the graveyard was erected for the sake of convenience in the 1880s to accommodate the victims of a smallpox epidemic.

The Chesnuts have reason to believe that the ghosts in their house are the spirits of the Donaldson family. In 1980, they sought the aid of a psychic who told them little except that there were spirits in the house, friendly spirits, whose dress appeared to be that of the late nineteenth century. She verified that the spirits were that of a family – a man, a woman and a child.

Another spirit sighted in the house is that of a black man, who has been seen in the part of the house that was once set aside for travelers. (Many years ago, it was customary to have such an area set apart from the rest of the house where travelers could stop and rest before continuing their journeys).

Yet another spirit, a woman, was spotted by the Chesnuts’ daughter standing over the girl’s bed and looking out the window. Interestingly, her room was traditionally used as the boys’ bedroom by the Donaldson family. Perhaps the shadowy figures is the spirit of the boys’ mother, watching over them as they sleep.

Although these are the only spirits that have been seen in the house, there have been numerous ghostly happenings. During dinner the light in the dining room once had a tendency to flash on and off until Mr. Chesnut announced that if the flashing did not stop, he would have the original light fixture replaced by a new one.

The flashing stopped. And visitors to the house have said they heard choral singing coming from the front bedroom, which was used by the Donaldsons’ as a birthing room.

Another interesting phenomenon is the behavior of an antique Bible which lifts itself off the table on which it rests then drops to the floor, always opening to the same passage. Mrs. Chesnut said that if they leave the Bible open to that passage, the book does not fall.

How do the Chesnuts feel about living in a haunted house?

Apparently, it does not bother them at all.

“They’re friendly ghosts,” said Mr. Chesnut. “Not all apparitions are unfriendly. We find change lying around on the floor a lot. I think they just knock it off the dresser where I empty my pockets.”

He added that “the Bible is the one thing that I’ve seen” that really convinced him they had ghosts. After all, a faulty light switch is one thing to explain away but the Bible was another matter.

“A psychic came out and said a few words over (the Bible), “ Mrs. Chesnut said, “and it stopped.”

Not that the Chesnuts really minded. In fact, the presence of spirits in their house does not seem to frighten them the slightest.

“The psychic said there were no negative vibrations, that they were all very positive spirits.”

Then, of course, there’s Atlanta’s most famous haunted mansion, Rainbow Terrace, now the Lullwater Estate on Ponce de Leon Road. Built to resemble a Spanish-Mediterranean villa, the large white stucco house with its dark orange tile roof was built in 1922 by barber Henry Heinz as a gift to his wife, socialite Lucy Candler, daughter of Coca-Cola company founder and one-time Atlanta Mayor Asa Candler. After Heinz was shot in 1943 by a burglar in what was to become one of Atlanta’s most notorious murder cases, Lucy Heinz could no longer bear to live on the property where she had shared such happy times with her husband.

By the 1960s and ‘70s, Rainbow Terrace had become a boarding house in which James S. Jenkins describes in his 1981 book “Murder In Atlanta” as owned by “an eccentric lady” who occupied the downstairs and rented out the second story, garage, and out-building as apartments. It was during this period that word began to circulate that the ghost of Henry Heinz was roaming the grounds.

Renters and neighbors claimed that they would see someone, perhaps a prowler, wandering the mansion grounds, but when they moved closer to the figure, no one was there. They also claimed to hear mysterious pistol shots as if someone was shooting target-practice, but again when they went to investigate, no one was there.

As the house lay vacant through the late 1970s and into the early 1980s, growing more and more deteriorated and overgrown, a grim fate looked likely for the once-grand mansion. That is, until the Metzler Muirhead Wright development corporation acquired the property, renovated the house, painted it pink, split it into condominiums, and erected a large $7 million townhouse project around it.

Does Heinz’s ghost still roam the grounds? Well, most Lullwater Estate residents have not reported any ghostly occurrences. However, James Giblin, who now lives in the part of the house that includes the old library where Heinz was shot, did say that three very unusual and unexplained things did happen in his home within the first year he lived there.

Right before Christmas in 1984, Giblin carefully hung up some holiday greenery on his mantelpiece. He went out, came back and found all the garlands on the floor, he said.

A few days later, his Christmas tree, also firmly erected, suddenly fell. Then finally a few weeks later in the middle of the night, a glass shelf crashed onto the floor, shattering some precious crystal and porcelain.

“I don’t believe in haunted houses,” Giblin said, “but something weird was going on. For those things to happen in such a short period of time just really didn’t make a lot of sense.”

Was it Heinz’s ghost making one last statement?

A favorite ghost story among Marietta residents involves the statue of Marion Meinart and her infant twins, an impressive grave maker in the old cemetery across from Marietta High School. The story goes that when October 13 falls on a rainy Friday night, at midnight, Marion Meinart’s statue weeps for her twin children, a boy and girl, who were buried with their mother in 1898, and sit cradled in the statue’s arms.

There are at least two versions of the story of their deaths. One tells that they lived in a large house in Marietta which burned and they perished in the fire. The second story goes that Marion died while giving birth and the children were stillborn.

The legend also says that on Halloween night at the stroke of midnight, one can evoke Marion Meinart’s spirit by circling the statue three times and chanting “Mary, Mary, why did your babies die?”

But North Atlanta does not hold a monopoly on local ghost stories. Down in Jonesboro, an antebellum mansion locals refer to as the old Warren House has been the site of numerous mysterious occurrences. The building is currently the headquarters of American Home Health Care.

While renovating the house a few years ago, workers reported that they would return from breaks to find tools had simply disappeared, said Andrea Bruce, an executive assistant with American Home Health Care. This happened while the house was locked and unoccupied, she said. They also mentioned hearing unaccountable footsteps on the stairs, she added.

But perhaps the strangest thing that happened occurred while they were working outside. The workers left their radio playing within the house, but then suddenly the music stopped. They assumed that the radio’s sudden shutdown was caused simply by some sort of atmospheric interference, Ms. Bruce explained, but when they went inside to investigate, they discovered that the radio had clicked off all by itself. They switched it back on, but after they went back outside, the same thing happened again.

After American Home Health Care executives moved in 1984, the radio that provided music for persons waiting on “hold” on the telephone also mysteriously shut off several times, Ms. Bruce said. The radio was kept in a cabinet, the doors of which were blocked by a huge file cabinet so heavy that “it takes two people to move,” she added.

The strange happenings are attributed to “George,” she said, the ghost of a 15-year-old, one-armed soldier. While no one has ever actually seen George, his appearance was described by a psychic who inspected the house for spirits in 1984.

When union troops invaded Jonesboro during the Civil War, they used the Warren house as a field hospital. After stripping off wallpaper during renovation work, workers even found pencil markings made by wounded soldiers from the Ohio Volunteer Militia, including signed names and the date Sept. 2, 1864.

The medium also described in detail “gay parties” that once occurred in the house and sensed the presence of another ghost, a woman in a beautiful white dress, Ms. Bruce said. She added that perhaps the woman might have been the bride in an 1899 wedding held in the house.

How does Ms. Bruce feel about George?

“I love it,” she said. “I think it’s great. He’s a nice ghost and he never bothers anybody.”

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