Eavesdrop on Voices from the Past at the Burgwin-Wright House

Photo by Michael Kleen

Remnants of a Colonial-Era jail where prisoners were held in appalling conditions make this centuries-old home ripe for ghostly tales.

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In its early days as a British colony, North Carolina was perceived as a backwoods territory full of crime, indentured servants, pirates, and other rough characters. Many ended up locked behind iron bars in the old Wilmington jail, over which John Burgwin built this home. Today, you can tour the house and see its history firsthand, but don’t be surprised if you hear something unusual.

Wilmington’s original wood, brick, and stone jail, known as a gaol, stood at the corner of Market and Third Streets from 1744 to 1768, when it burned in a fire. Nearby was Wilmington’s historic public courtyard, where debtors and lawbreakers were hanged or pilloried. Sensing an opportunity, a British merchant named John Burgwin purchased the property, along with its stone foundations. He built a handsome Georgian-Style home where he could conduct business while in town.

Ingenious construction methods allowed the home to remain cool over the hot summer months, but the Burgwin family spent most of their time on their plantation outside of town. Joshua Grainger Wright and his wife Susan purchased the house from Burgwin in 1799. The Wright family lived there until 1869. Its rooms are well-furnished with eighteenth and nineteenth century antiques, reflecting how these families lived.

In 1930, the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in North Carolina stepped in to prevent the house from being leveled to build a gas station. In 1951, the Burgwin-Wright House officially opened as a museum. The adjacent gardens have been restored, as has part of the old jail.

Its age and macabre history has led many to claim this historic home is haunted. At a ghost walk in 2008, tour guide Denise Ward told WECT News, “Many ghosts haunt the halls and rooms of that beautiful building.” But what specific incidents have sparked such speculation?

Several years ago, a tour group witnessed an old spinning wheel move on its own. When they investigated, they found the wheel frozen in place. In Best Ghost Tales of North Carolina (2006), author Terrance Zepke tells the tale of Ardell Tiller, a museum docent who claimed to close the door to the Blue Bedroom while locking up for the night, only to find it open in the morning.

Joy Allen, executive director of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the State of North Carolina, describes herself as “neither a believer nor a disbeliever in ghosts,” but in 2015 she wrote in the Star News that she once “caught a glimpse of someone walking by” while sitting at her desk. She invited the Wilmington Paranormal Research group to investigate, which claimed to record indiscernible voices in the background during an interview.

Another team, Port City Paranormal, claimed to hear muffled voices, faint conversations, a cough, and a woman sobbing. They recorded a voice saying “Right, that time,” in the subbasement that used to be part of the old jail, and a female voice saying the name “Stephanie.”

While none of these stories are particularly hair-raising, they do contribute to the sense that something from the past remains at this over 250-year-old home. It’s worth a visit to take a tour from the museum’s knowledgeable staff and perhaps encounter something phantasmal.

The Burgwin-Wright Museum and Gardens, 224 Market Street in Wilmington, North Carolina, is open Monday through Saturday (closed on Sunday), 10:00am to 3:00pm. Visitors can take a self-guided tour of the gardens, but you must take a guided tour to see the mansion. Tours start every hour on the hour. Admission is $12 for adults and $10 for seniors. Other discounts are available. Tour tickets are purchased in the gift shop. For more info, call (910) 762-0570.

Author: Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen is an author, raconteur, and occasional traveler. He has a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education. He enjoys studying military history, folklore, and philosophy.

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