U.S. Custom House – Charleston, SC

By the 1840s, due to increased Atlantic trade, the U.S. Custom Service had outgrown their office in the Exchange Building. Congress appropriated funds in 1847 and a waterfront site known as Fitzsimmon’s Wharf on the Cooper River was purchased for $130,000. When construction began and while digging the foundation workers found the remains of Craven’s Bastion, a Colonial-era fortification. Due to the marshy location, a grillage of timber was constructed to support the weight of the building. In 1859, with South Carolina’s secession becoming more possible, Congress refused to allocate funds and construction ceased.

Exchange Building, East Bay & Broad Streets. Home of the original Custom offices.

In 1867, Congress revived the construction and it was completed in 1879. The original design included a large dome and four porticos, one on each side. However, due to post-War financial concerns, only the east and west porticos were completed, eliminating the north and the south.

In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed William C. Crum, MD, graduate of the Avery Institute, University of South Carolina, and Howard University Medical School as port collector. Crum was the son of Darius Crum, a German American, and Charlotte C. Crum, a free woman of color. He grew up near Orangeburg. Returning to Charleston, he began his practice and later joined the staff of the Crum joined the staff of the African American–operated McClennan Hospital and Training School for Nurse and eventually became the hospital’s chief administrator and Charleston’s most prominent black resident. In 1883 he married Ellen Craft, the daughter of the famous fugitive slave abolitionists William and Ellen Craft of Georgia. 

The New York Times and the New York Herald criticized the nomination as ill advised. In South Carolina, U.S. Senator Ben Tillman and the editor James C. Hemphill of the Charleston News and Courier jointly denounced Crum.  Tillman exclaimed, “We still have guns and ropes in the South.” James C. Hemphill wrote that Crum “is a colored man and that in itself ought to bar him from office.” Tillman temporarily derailed the nomination, but Roosevelt kept Crum in the position through interim appointments, until his January 1905 confirmation. There are remnants of Dr. Crum’s tenure inside the Custom House. There is evidence of a metal structure placed in the front of his office giving the collector a safe place to hide. As well as a desk believed to belong to Crum. Resigning his office in 1909 when President William Taft took office. In 1910 he was appointed the Minister to Liberia. by Pres. McKinley, a more traditional posting for an African American.

In 1908, Dr. Crum appointed Mr. Clarence O. Brown, an African American, as collector of customs, where he served for nearly half a century. He later received the Treasury Department’s Albert Gallatin Award for distinguished service.

Custom House, 1920 view. Modern view has not changed.

Today In Charleston History: April 24


On Easter Sunday, Dr. Francis Le Jau conducted communion at St. Philip’s. He was dismayed that only twenty-four people received the sacraments.

1780 – The Siege of Charlestown

At dawn, Lt. Colonel William Henderson attacked the British lines with 200 men – South Carolina and Virginia Continentals.  They caught the British troops completely by surprise, killing several with bayonets before retreating. The attack “was done in a few Minutes without our partys firing a Single Gun & in the greatest order.” Capt. Thomas Moultrie (brother of Gen. William Moultrie) and two privates were killed. 

At the same time Cornwallis marched on the American garrison in Mt. Pleasant at Haddrell’s Point and “found no resistance.” The British control of the eastern side of the Cooper River effectively cut off Charlestown’s communication with the back country, and Gov. Rutledge.

1860- Road to Secession.

Democratic National Convention convened at South Carolina Institute Hall. Caleb Cushing of Massachusetts presided over the proceedings. It was a volatile convention as most of the delegates were split along sectional lines. In his opening remarks Benjamin Perry of South Carolina said that “we have a duty to guard [the South] against evils which no one can forsee or foretell” and urged them to choose a candidate who would sustain the Union. His speech was greeted with hissing from the crowd.  

South Carolina Institute Hall, street view, (Harper's Weekly)

South Carolina Institute Hall, street view, (Harper’s Weekly)

1860 Democrat Convention (Harper's Weekly)

1860 Democrat Convention, interior view of Institute Hall (Harper’s Weekly)

Today In History: October 2


augusta-train-tracks-001The railroad from Charleston to Hamburg was completed, 136 miles – the longest railroad in the world at the time. Cost of the project was $950,000. The next day, a special “dignitaries” train ran from Charleston to Aiken, South Carolina, with Governor Robert Y. Hayne on board.

BEST FRIEND -history of south carolina - simms

    At a meeting to organize the annual Fall Festival, Col. John H. Averill suggested that the festival needed some rethinking.

Why not change the Fall Festival to an Exposition of the resources and industry of South Carolina? Abandon the Festival this year, and open the twentieth century, one year from now, with an Exposition that will reflect credit on our city and all its people.

Today In Charleston History: September 29


Rice was placed on the list of enumerated goods, meaning that all rice shipped to Europe must pass through an English port.

1786 – Charleston First – Golf Club

golferSeveral Scottish merchants organized the South Carolina Golf Club on Harleston’s Green – a rough rectangle used as a public pleasure ground, wedged between present-day Calhoun & Beaufain Streets and Rutledge & Barre Streets. Slaves apparently served as the earliest “finders” (caddies). They cleared the Green for the golfers, yelling “be forewarned!” to alert children and families. 

1812 – Dueling 

A duel took place at the Washington Race Course. William Bay, son of a local judge, was killed by William Crafts. Crafts had publically stated that the local bishop was “too much a Gentleman & a man of sense” to be a Republican. Bay, a Republican, took offense and challenged Crafts to a duel. Bay was shot in the heart and died immediately.

1938 – Natural Disasters – Tornadoes 

tornado, st. philips

Tornado damage of St. Philips Church

Five tornados crossed Charleston in the span of less than 90 minutes, 2 of which crossed the peninsula and 1 coming ashore on Sullivan’s Island. 32 people died and the damage was “estimated to be over $2 million.”

tornado 1938

View of tornado damage – looking up Market Street from the U.S. Custom House on East Bay Street.

1938 tornado001

Tornado damage on Market Street.

Today In Charleston History: September 27

1671 – Indian Uprising.

Governor West and the Grand Council declared war against the Kussoes Tribe, living up the Combahee River. The Kussoes declared themselves allied with the Spanish and began raiding English properties. Within seven days, the English had defeated the Kussoes, killing some, and enslaving many, selling them to the West Indies.

1718 – Piracy.


Pirate battle

Col. William Rhett sailed up the Cape Fear River from Charles Town with two ships, the Henry and the Sea Nymph. He was on a mission to root out pirates along the Carolina coast. In the late afternoon Rhett spotted a suspicious ship named the Royal James floating at anchor. The vessel tried to sail toward the open sea, but the Henry intervened and was able to maneuver the Royal James onto a shoal. In the process, both the Henry and Sea Nymph ran aground as well – all three ships were stuck and the tide was receding. The crews of all three vessels spent the overnight hours preparing for battle when the tide turned and daylight arrived.

col rhett and bonnet

Stede Bonnet stands before William Rhett

The Henry was within firing range of the Royal James and as the tide gradually came in, the ships fought fiercely for two hours, cannons booming and muskets blazing. Rhett’s ships floated free first and they moved into position. The Charles Town men stormed the Royal James and overpowered the crew of thirty-five. Upon boarding the ship, Rhett discovered Stede Bonnet – wanted for the Blackbeard blockade four months before.

The Carolinians suffered eighteen dead and twenty-eight wounded. The pirates lost nine of their crew with two wounded. Most of the surviving pirates were hanged in Charles Town in November.

1805 – Deaths.

Gen. William Moultrie died at the age of 74 and was buried outside Charleston in what is now North Charleston in the family cemetery on his son’s property at Windsor Hill Plantation off Ashley Phosphate Road. His body was later reinterred at Ft. Moultrie.

moultie image

Today in Charleston History: September 25


Rev. Samuel Gilman married Caroline Howard in Georgia and the couple returned to Charleston. They quickly became important figures in Charleston’s social and literary circles. Samuel supported his wife’s literary aspirations but expected her to fulfill her traditional role as a minister’s wife. He had reservations about women who “chose to move on the agitating theatre of public life.” He felt her role was to “impress among the tender minds of youth the precepts of religion.”


 Gen. Pierre Gustav Beauregard returned to Charleston. The Federals learned of his presence almost immediately. Morris Island Union commander, Gen. Rufus Saxton, wrote, “I propose to give General Beauregard a salute in Charleston this evening from my 200-pounders.”


Today In Charleston History: August 27

1706 – Queen Anne’s War.

The six French ships (a frigate, four sloops and one galley) from Martinique, led by Captain De Feboure, crossed the Charles Town bar with more than 700 Spanish soldiers on board. They anchored off Sullivan’s Island, awaiting winds in which to sail into the harbor.

1780 – British Occupation.

old exchange bildgThirty-three people were arrested in Charlestown and charged with encouraging residents to resist British authority. The prisoners, some of whom had been placed under house arrest, were dragged from their beds by British soldiers, and jailed in the Provost Dungeon of the Exchange Building. The arrested men included:

  • Christopher Gadsden
  • Alexander Moultrie
  • Richard Hutson
  • Dr. John S. Budd
  • William Massey
  • John Neufville
  • Joseph Parker
  • Thomas Savage
  • Dr. Peter Fayssoux
  • Dr. David Ramsay
  • Dr. John E. Poyas
  • Tom Singleton
  • Thomas Ferguson
  • Edward Rutledge
  • Hugh Rutledge
  • Thomas Heyward, Jr.
  • Arthur Middleton
  • Thomas Grimball
  • William Johnson
  • Peter Timothy

Within a few days the prisoners were transferred to the ship Sandwich in Charlestown harbor. Edward Rutledge learned of his two-year old son’s death while on board. Being unable to attend the funeral and comfort his wife increased his bitterness toward Britain. Militiamen like Charles Pinckney were paroled to their homes.

1782 – American Revolution.


John Laurens

Col. John Laurens was killed at Tar Bluff on the Combahee River, about forty miles south west of Charleston, in a completely useless skirmish. The British were trying to loot supplies of rice before leaving, and Laurens’ company of fifty men were determined to stop them. John Laurens was the first Patriot killed.

Martha Laurens, living in Vigan, France, did not learn about her brother’s death until three months later. However, during her morning prayers for her family, on this day, she stopped praying for her brother as she “felt there was no longer need.”

Years later, while visiting Charleston, Lafayette stated, “Colonel Laurens was the most valiant officer and accomplished gentleman I ever knew. He was the beau ideal of gallantry.”

In 2015 John Laurens became a more well known cultural figure through the popularity of the Broadway musical “Hamilton.” Laurens was a major character in the the first Act, and Hamilton mourns Laurens’ death in Act II.

Charleston: America’s Most Popular Dance

Runnin-Wild-ProgramOn October 29th, 1923, a black musical named Runnin’ Wild opened on Broadway, with songs by James P. Johnson and Cecil Mack. The first act of the show ended with the song “Charleston.” Elizabeth Welsh, as the character of Ruth Little in the show, performed the dance with chorus boys called the “Dancing Redcaps.” Elida Webb, the choreographer, claimed to have invented the dance, which, of course, was not true.

The dance called the Charleston has deep roots that trace back to the Ashanti tribe from the Gold Coast of Africa. As those Africans were enslaved and brought into America, many of their tribal customs were passed down through generations living on South Carolina low country plantations along the coast. By the turn of the 20th century hundreds of thousands of emancipated slaves, called “geechie” – slang for people from the low country, had moved to Chicago and New York for economic opportunity. Their syncopated minstrel-style music of the 1890s became ragtime, blues and ultimately, jazz. The Jenkins Orphanage Band of Charleston performed on the streets of Harlem during the first decade of the 20th century and the description of their dance steps sounds very much like the modern-day Charleston.

In fact, the composer of the song “Charleston,” James P. Johnson, talked about his inspiration for the song.

The people who came to The Jungle Casino [Harlem] were mostly from around Charleston, S.C. They picked their [dance] partners with care that would give them a chance to get off. It was while playing for these Southern dancers that I composed a number of Charlestons, eight of them, all with the same dance rhythm. One of these later became my famous ‘Charleston’ when it hit Broadway.”

 Another Harlem piano player, Willie “the Lion” Smith recalled that “the kids from the Jenkins Orphanage Band of Charleston used to do Geechie steps when they were in New York on their yearly tour.”  What cannot be denied is that by the end of 1923 everybody in America was doing the Charleston.

Nothing else epitomizes the spirit and joyous exuberance of the 1920s as the Charleston. Other dance crazes have had their fifteen minutes of fame: the Waltz, the Tango, the Hokey-pokey, the Twist, the Hustle, the Macarena, and even Break dancing. None of them, however, managed to influence and infect an entire generation so thoroughly the way the Charleston did. Almost 100 years later, the image of the Jazz Age is always a Flapper doing the Charleston. No other American decade can be so neatly summed up in one simple image.

 Tin Pan Alley songwriters in New York quickly turned out hundreds of “Charleston” songs. Charleston contests became a regular part of Dance halls and hotels everywhere, from big cities to small towns. One of the most famous scenes in American cinema is the Charleston dancing contest in It’s A Wonderful Life with James Stewart and Donna Reed falling into the swimming pool as the dance floor opens up. Hospitals across America began to admit patients complaining of “Charleston knee.”

Many non-dancing jobs of the day required black employees to be competent to dance or teach the Charleston in order to be hired. There were hundreds of advertisements in the New York papers looking for a waiter, a maid, a cook, or a gardener with the stipulation: “Must be able to Charleston!”

 16b. Charleston - Churns You Up - 28 March 1926However, not everyone was infected with Charleston fever. In London, sixty teachers of ballroom dancing were taught the “Charleston” in July 1925 and pronounced it “vulgar.” That is, until the Prince of Wales, Prince Edward, learned it and performed it very skillfully in public. The Vicar of St. Aidan’s however, thought that “any lover of the beautiful will die rather than be associated with the Charleston. It is neurotic! It is rotten! It stinks! Phew, open the windows!”

In 1925, tragedy struck. The press found a physician in Seneca, Kansas, who claimed that “pretty Evelyn Myers,” age 17, had died of peritonitis brought on by dancing the Charleston too violently. Variety Magazine reported that in Boston, the vibrations of Charleston dancers were so strong that it caused the Pickwick Club to collapse, killing fifty of its patrons. The headline screamed:


pickwick club_filtered

 More than 200 people – police, fireman and volunteers – worked for twenty hours digging through the rubble of the building to free the trapped victims. Following the catastrophe, the Boston mayor’s office issued an edict banning the Charleston from public dance-halls. Other cities followed suit, banning the dancing of the Charleston for safety reasons, but nothing could stop the Charleston stampede. The more the authorities preached against it, the more popular the Charleston became.

 Mayor Frank Borden, Jr, of Bradley Beach, New Jersey, outlawed the dance from the city-owned ballroom. He cited “broken shins” as his reason. “I have no objection to a person dancing their feet and head off, but I think it best that they keep away from the Charleston.” Richard Zober of Passaic, New Jersey also banned the Charleston in his town. “I think it would be safer and better for all concerned,” he said. An article syndicated by the International Feature Service read: 

“From coast to coast the ‘Charleston’ has caught the country swaying to its curious rhythm. No dance, since jazz first came into vogue, has created such a furor. Enthusiasts ecstatically stamp to its syncopated measures, while others, equally in earnest, denounce it. But the controversy that is carried on everywhere concerning this latest mania has failed to stem its tide of popularity. America is “Charleston” mad!” 

Emil Coleman, a famous orchestra leader, declared that the “Charleston” is “the most characteristically American of any of the modern dances whose peculiar accent in time is the musical expression of the native (black) temperament.” One female evangelist in Oregon called the Charleston “the first and easiest step toward hell.”

Some dance ballrooms gave up trying to discourage the frenetic Charleston all together and just posted large signs on the dance floor that read: PCQ – PLEASE CHARLESTON QUIETLY! 


Today In Charleston History: August 23

1770 – American Revolution – Foundations.


Henry Laurens

News arrived that Boston, New York and Philadelphia had joined Georgia and Rhode Island in breaking their agreements with the non-importation Association. Henry Laurens wrote:

I am so disappointed in my Expectations of several Colonies North … to their late important Resolutions that I am in a humour to disbelieve the Sincerity of the majority of all Politicians …


Henry Laurens left the American treaty negotiations in Paris to travel to Vigan, France in order visit his ailing brother, James.

1864 – Bombardment of Charleston.

That night, the Swamp Angel resumed shelling Charleston, on the thirty-sixth round the gun barrel blew up, the psychological threat remained real.

CHARLESTON’S GHOSTS – an interview with author James Caskey

Recently I had the opportunity to talk to Savannah author, James Caskey, about his new book, Charleston’s Ghosts: Hauntings in the Holy City (Manta Ray Books, 2014). Caskey is a kindred spirit – tour guide, researcher, storyteller and curious about the historical truth, no matter how many toes and sensibilities get stepped on.   charleson ghostsWe met several years ago when Caskey was the writer and producer of a television program, Phantoms of History.  He kindly asked me and my wife, Rebel Sinclair, to be a part of the show, which illustrated (and de-constructed) some of Charleston’s most famous ghost stories. Since that time, we have managed to find several opportunities to meet and talk (usually over food and spirits.)  

JONES: I understand why you wrote your first book, Haunted Savannah. You are a Savannah tour guide and operate a ghost tour business, so the book was a natural extension of your research for your tours. What inspired you to expand your research to other cities?

CASKEY: I’ve always been a storyteller. When I was younger I was an artist—I actually went to art school, and even in that creative medium, my paintings had a strong linear narrative. My art told historical stories, even the portraiture. Then in 2001 I got introduced to the world of guided walking tours, and it was just a natural fit for me: I had already been telling ghost stories for years, and it was sort of funny that there was this flash like: Wait, I can get paid for this?


James Caskey

I had been researching ghost stories even before I opened Cobblestone Tours, and what I found surprised me: not only were most of the ghost stories which other guides were telling as accepted truth sometimes wrong, but their history was frequently way off base, as well. The nighttime tour landscape back then was dotted with fictional tales of monsters (presented as fact) that lived in lairs under the cemetery, that sort of thing. I wanted to do better than that. I began writing initially as a way of giving my own employees a study manual for their stories, my version of ‘Cliffs Notes for Ghost Tours.’ I found that I really enjoyed the research aspect, and loved sharing the stories because the true history was so much better than the bogus folklore, most of the time. True life is almost always better than fiction. Well, my little hobby grew from there. I was three years into this process when I realized I was writing a book, a volume which eventually became Haunted Savannah. It published in 2005. This is a very roundabout way of explaining that once the Savannah book was in stores, I really missed that ‘researching and writing’ process. It took me a long time to muster up the courage to tackle another major writing project. Once I decided to do it, though, I really wanted to engage a city with which I was completely unfamiliar. I mean, New Orleans is over eleven hours away by car, one way, and I knew very little about it. It was a big leap. The book is very much about that journey and exploration, and fortunately I get a lot of feedback from readers that they find that level of honesty refreshing. There was definitely a fear of failure, and some moments of confusion, mixed in with the joy of unveiling an exotic and personally unknown place. New Orleans has some great stories.

JONES: Your books are as much history as they are ghost stories. What are the major problems you encounter in this type of research?

CASKEY: Well, you have a certain type of person who prefers the erroneous folklore: some just really want their pre-conceived notions confirmed. However, the documented history I present in my books is unvarnished, and often less tidy than the version you might hear on a ghost tour. It can be an uncomfortable thing, to eviscerate a legend that another person believes as fact. I know from our discussions that you experienced the same exact thing regarding Lavinia Fisher when you wrote Wicked Charlestonthe fictionalized wedding dress, the erroneously high body count, etc. People will really argue for the campfire tale sometimes, even if you can back your assertations up, point by point. I want to present both sides: the legend AND the facts. If people just want a recounting of the bogus folklore, well… those books are already out there. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good story and folklore can be very entertaining, but you’re also going to learn the truth from my books. I don’t research and write to satisfy people’s expectations: my writing is really a process of discovery.

JONES: Why did you choose Charleston as the subject for your third book?

CASKEY: Charleston SC is one of the most tragic and historically violent places in North America. It is haunted by more than just ghosts: secession, slavery, great fires, yellow fever, and a uniquely brutal timeline. There was no question whether or not I was going to write about it, the only question was when.

JONES: Are there major differences in the paranormal history between New Orleans, Savannah and Charleston? If so, what are they?

CASKEY: Honestly, I’m more fascinated by the similarities. Each location once had a huge Native American population, if you go back to before their contact with Spanish and English explorers. There was a horrific genocide in the American South, starting in the mid-1500’s, on a scale which is scarcely conceivable today. The American Indian populations were largely eradicated. All three towns had their formation shortly after that cauldron of disease, war, and death. It’s no wonder so many Southern seaport cities have such haunted reputations!

JONES: What was your favorite Charleston ghost story before you wrote the book? Is it still your favorite?

CASKEY: I probably liked the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon the most, going in. I still love it, but there are other stories which sparked my interest a little more, like Madame Talvande and the Sword Gates on Legare Street. Charleston has such a wonderfully twisted history, and is a fertile ground for storytellers.

JONES: What was the most surprising story you uncovered during your research about Charleston?

CASKEY: There are more than a few good candidates, but I would have to say that the story that most surprised me was the Tavern on East Bay. It’s just this tiny little liquor store; looking at it from the outside, one would never expect the supercharged ghost story it holds within. I talked to owner Gary Dow for hours, and it was by far the most entertaining day I’ve ever had as a researcher. The real surprise was his attitude toward the supernatural things happening to him on a nearly daily basis: he is fiercely protective of his ghosts. If you think the TV program ‘Ghost Adventures’ is the way to deal with spirits, you know, taunting and aggressive, well, Gary will politely take you to school on that subject. He likes his ghosts, and by every indication, the feeling is mutual.

JONES: What is the most haunted location in Charleston, and why?

CASKEY: I would have to say that block on Queen Street between Meeting and King is the most haunted, if you’re asking about concentration of stories. The Mills House, Poogan’s Porch, and Husk all have stories. Following a hunch, one day I had lunch at 82 Queen in that same block, and I casually asked my server if that spot was haunted. He looked at me like I was crazy and said, “Yes, of course it is.” I do know that area burned in the Great Fire of 1861, so perhaps the high number of hauntings in that area has something to do with that tragic event.

JONES: Any plans to research and write about other cities?

CASKEY: Yes, although I plan on taking a little break, I definitely would like to continue writing. There are a number of cities on my haunted hit-list.

JONES: Other than reading your new book, what are some of the must-do things to do during a visit to Charleston?

CASKEY: Eating and drinking have to be high on the list for anyone visiting Charleston. It’s a city famous for its food and hospitality. During one of my research trips while writing the book, I observed a family checking in to the hotel that had packed coolers full of cheap processed lunchmeat and sodas, and I couldn’t help but think that they were missing a major component of their vacation. It was oddly sad. To me, to not partake of the local cuisine would be like visiting Nashville (Music City) and only listening to ‘bubblegum pop’ the entire time. Other than that, I’d recommend taking a cultural tour of Charleston. Try a carriage or walking tour, and a couple of different house museums or heritage sites. The Old Slave Mart Museum on Chalmers Street is especially worthwhile. Oh, and you simply have to experience sunset at a rooftop bar. The view of the church-steepled skyline is pretty spectacular.

Contact James Caskey at JamesBCaskey.com.   To take a Savannah ghost or pub tour, contact GhostSavannah.com.