According to local legend — lovingly preserved by local ghost-walk tours — Gallows Hill was on the 500 block of Market Street. In colonial times (the story goes), public executions — a lot of them — were carried out there. As a result, psychic activity is supposed to be especially strong in this vicinity.
Most Gallows Hill stories focus on the Price-Gause House, 514 Market St., which supposedly stands on or near the site of the old Wilmington gallows or hanging tree.
Documentation is scant on public executions in New Hanover County prior to 1800. It seems clear, however, that a lot of bodies were buried in the lot where the Price-Gause House now stands. Lewis Philip Hall in “Land of the Golden River” reports that workers digging for pipes in the area in 1976 found a number of bricked-in tombs, similar to those that can still be seen in the St. James churchyard at Third and Market streets.
“All sorts of human bones were found by us when we dug in the back yard,” wrote Dr. Alice Rheinstein Bernheim, in a letter to the Wilmington Morning Star in 1957.
Responding to a feature story about ghosts reported in the Price-Gause house, Bernheim — a Barnard College alumna and one of New York City’s first practicing women physicians — recalled growing up in the house while her family lived there in the 1880s and 1890s. Little Alice was apparently fascinated by the human remains. “My friends have suggested that was why I studied medicine,” she added in her letter.
The Italianate house at 514 Market came well after the days of hangings, although sources disagree about its dates. Dr. William James Price, a Wilmington physician who later served in the Confederate Army, seems to have acquired the lot in 1854. Tony Wrenn, in his architectural history of Wilmington, puts its building date around 1855. Based on tax records, however, Beverly Tetterton thinks it might not have been erected until 1860. Other writers put the house’s construction as early as 1843.
Whatever the date, the house seems to have drawn ghost stories the way sunbathers draw mosquitoes. Many sources tell of ghostly figures seen in upstairs windows when no one alive could have been there Others mention mysterious creaks or chairs that seemed to rock by themselves. Servants complained that kitchen items would be moved around at night.
Lynne Gause, whose husband Thomas Gause Jr. grew up in the house, told author Brooks Preik of spending a night there as a newlywed. In the middle of the night, she noticed an eerie chill in the room as unseen hands seemed to pull the covers from the bed.
Many of these ghosts, of course, are linked to the gallows. Preik and Fred Newber (writing in Encore magazine) tell different versions of the story of James Peckham, supposedly hanged in the 1700s for the theft of an expensive purse. Peckham went to his death protesting his innocence, and his spirit is said to stalk Gallows Hill to this day, seeking evidence to clear his name.
Other apparitions connected to the Price-Gause House seem more benigan. Mary Frances Gause Oppelt, the sister of Thomas Gause Jr., recalls a jolly spirit she called “George” or “Grandpa.” Some witnesses, standing at the house’s open front door, claim to have seen a smiling old man, in clothing of another era, bounding down the front stairs as if to offer a greeting … only to vaporize.
The Prices and their descendants, the Gauses, owned the house from its construction until 1968. Dr. Price’s son, Joseph Price, the commander of the Confederate ironclad CSS Neuse and later harbormaster of Wilmington, inherited the property at his father’s death shortly after the Civil War.
The family did, however, occasionally rent out the property. From 1881 to 1899, it was the home of Frederick Rheinstein (Alice’s father), who operated a dry-goods store at 214 N. Front St. Edwin C. Holt, president of Delgado Mills, lived there from around 1902 until 1905.
From 1968 to 1991, the house was the headquarters of the Greater Wilmington Chanber of Commerce, whose employees often reported eerie happenings. In 1990, as the Chamber prepared to move, the house was acquired by Ballard, McKim and Sawyer (later BMS Architects). Today, it houses Bowman Murray Hemingway Architects.
Some of the psychic hoopla surrounding Gallows Hill and the Price-Gause House is clearly bogus. In the 1960s, the Star-News published a photograph that appeared to show an apparition standing in the house’s doorway. This photo was later widely reprinted. Mary Frances Oppelt, however, told Brooks Preik that the image was a hoax perpetrated by the photographer as a prank, in collusion with her brother, who had worked for the newspaper.
A Canadian television production, filming at the house, made much of the words “Help Us” written in dirt in one of the windows. Later investigation, however, proved that the message was left by an employee who worked in the building.
The group Eastern Paranormal, however, has investigated the building and claims to have recorded a lot of electronic voice phenomena (EVP) on the site, as well as possible picture and film anomalies. One member even claims to have seen and spoken to a woman in period attire. Here’s the group’s posting about the case: http://www.easternparanormal.com/Gallows_Hill_Wilmington_NC.html.
Brooks Preik, in “Haunted Wilmington and the Cape Fear Coast,” and John Hirchak, in “Ghosts of Old Wilmington,” each devote a chapter to Gallows Hill/Price-Gause phenomena.
Date posted: March 21, 2012