Heed the warnings of the Gray Man, Pawleys Island’s resident ghost who roams the beach during hurricane season.
Storytelling and folklore abound in the South, and most people can spin at least one good ghost story. For South Carolina historian Lee Brockington, storytelling is a way of life. She remembers her father warning her about the plat eye, a sort of local boogeyman, when tucking her in bed at night, and she heard many a tale of the Gray Man around a campfire on the beach.
“Oral tradition within certain cultures has a strong sense of religion,” she says. “Because of that, we find an interesting merging of storytelling and warnings and discipline.” She says legends about the weather are commonplace in folklore. Think “April showers bring May flowers.” Since our ancestors didn’t have the Weather Channel, they instead relied on rhymes and folk wisdom.
The legend of the Gray Man on Pawley’s Island is one such story that features a ghost who forecasts the weather—hurricanes to be exact. “The origin of the Gray Man story could be as early as an 1822 storm or as late as the closing of the Civil War in 1865,” says Brockington. “The Civil War story is one of the most oft told now.”
While the Gray Man’s origins are rooted in the past, the sightings of this foggy figure on the beach are not. “Unsolved Mysteries” documented the 1989 sighting by Jim and Clara Moore just as Hurricane Hugo was approaching. The Moores are friends of Brockington, and she’s heard their personal account many times as well. The couple say they were walking on the beach just before the noon evacuation order came in that September day and saw a man walking alone on the shore. When the man got within speaking distance of them, Jim raised his hand to say hello, and the man disappeared. They looked everywhere but saw no sign of the mysterious figure. The Moores evacuated and when they returned to check on their house, it was almost concealed by debris but unharmed.
The legend goes that if you meet the Gray Man and heed his warning, your family and your house will be spared. Below, Brockington shares the story of the Gray Man that’s most often told around Pawleys Island. “That’s the story that we’ve so frequently heard of the Gray Man as children huddled on the front porch during a thunderstorm, after dark out on the beach around a bonfire. So many of us, including me at age 9, listening to that story, knew in our heart of hearts it was a ghost story, it was pretend, but also you knew too that when a big storm came, if you were on the beach and looked north or south, you might catch a glimpse of him,” she says.
To learn more about the stories of Pawleys Island and see historic photos of rice plantations, the beach, hunting and hammocks, Brockington has written a new book Pawleys Island: Images of America. Her co-author is Steve Roberts, husband of Cokie Roberts, who owns a house on the north end of the island. The book will launch, Friday, July 13, during a literary luncheon at DeBordieu Colony Clubhouse in Pawleys Island.
The Gray Man as told by Lee Brockington
The Gray Man may have appeared at the time of a catastrophic 1822 hurricane that came in at North Island in Georgetown, South Carolina, adjacent to Pawleys Island. For generations since that storm, the story of the Gray Man warning residents and vacationers on Pawleys Island of an impending storm has been accepted, and the Gray Man has even been sought as measure of how serious a storm would be. Some rely on voluntary or mandatory evacuation orders to tell them how serious the storm might be. Others rely on a sighing of the Gray Man.
The Gray Man seems to always be a masculine figure, shrouded in gray, although rarely can people describe human features or clothing, but he seems to appear just as you’d expect: as a ghost, as a spirit, as a questionable figure down the beach. Also, he seems to be appearing at the time the weather is impending, skies are gray, waves are choppy, wind might be blowing the tide higher than normal. And the Gray Man does not speak. In some of the stories, he points to the mainland. In other stories, he merely appears, but the Gray Man since 1822 seems to appear and give heed of an impending storm. And if you heed his warning and evacuate, not only will your life be spared but a strong belief is that your house will be spared.
One of the recurring features of the story is one that does involve the Civil War. A man who went off to fight in 1861 and put on the gray Confederate uniform wrote letters to the woman he loved so much. She was the daughter of a rice planter on the Waccamaw River on the mainland side of Pawleys Island, and they wrote letters back and forth. He asked her to marry him in one letter, and she said yes. They both knew the wait could be long until the conflicts between the north and the south were resolved, and she wrote in other letters that she would wait for him. And when the Confederacy surrendered, he wrote to her and said that he would be home as soon as he could, hopefully by the beginning of May.
Of course we know the beginning of May is also the hurricane season. Her family was living out on Pawleys Island. Typically, plantation families left the rice plantation because of the standing water in the rice fields and literally evacuated to Pawleys Island between April and October—not only the rice planting season where mosquitos were breeding in that standing water of the rice fields but also hurricane season. The hurricanes were far less frequent than the imminent danger of malaria. When the last letter was received by the fiancee, she knew that his appearance could happen at any time.
He assured her that he planned to take a shortcut on horseback instead of coming up the river and cutting across. He thought that he would come from the adjacent island right across the creek and then approach her beach house on horseback, and he had hoped that she would be on the porch or on the dunes or on the beach waiting for him because he could not wait to see her. As he and his former slave traveled up the beach at DeBordieu Island and then got to the creek dividing those two barrier islands, in his Confederate uniform he went first and unknowingly he stepped his horse into a place in the creek where the sand was deeper and much softer than he anticipated. The horse began going down and before long his own feet were moored in the sand in the stirrups. He hollered to his former slave, his man and servant who was with him, to get a limb, to get something and out on the open beach of the barrier island there are no limbs. At best there may be driftwood that’s rarely long enough to have reached his former master.
The only thing he knew to do was take the bridle and the reins off his horse and try to extend them to his master who was still on his horse, but going down in that soft sand of the saltwater creek. When the bridle and the reins proved too short, all that black man could do was stand and watch his former master drown right there at the south end of Pawleys Island. He mounted his horse and knew a long ride was ahead of him as he made his way back to the Waccamaw neck and planned to go north on Kings Highway.
Meanwhile, back on Pawleys Island, the Confederate officer’s fiancee was on a dune, watching the storm, her family in the house packing up and preparing, but she was determined to stay as long as she could and convince her family that this storm wasn’t going to be bad enough to leave the beach to go back to the rice plantation where the threat of malaria was so strong. But as she sat on the dunes looking south toward DeBordieu Island, she saw her fiance approaching her not on horseback but on foot, and as he approached her she recognized him immediately. She stood up from the primary dune, she made her way from the soft sand to the hard-packed sand of low tide and began running toward the figure that she recognized as her fiance. She cried out to him and her family began to hear her and came out on the porch expecting to see the Confederate officer returning from the war. Instead, they saw her returning to no one. She threw up her hands and expected her fiance to run toward her and he stood motionless. He did not raise his hand to wave to her, he did not extend his arms to hug her and he did not even hasten his step much less break into a run to run into her arms, which were extended.
She though this was unusual and even as she approached him and got close to him, it was as if she had walked right through him and then he was not there. As she turned and looked about, she thought she saw him one more time with his arm extended pointing toward the mainland. She could not understand this but when she returned to her family and said, ‘I saw him, he was there, he was pointing to the mainland,’ they took that as someone she perhaps had seen that was saying the storm is going to be bad, you need to get to the mainland. Other members of her family believe that she was overcome and saw something that was not there, even though she insisted she saw him. He had on his gray uniform and he was making his way back to her.
Without much more time passing, they bundled everything up, took their last load out to the wagons and carriages. Horses, cows, chickens and enslaved laborers of the past who were still working for them made their way across the south causeway of Pawleys Island just before it went underwater. A big hurricane struck and destroyed almost every single house on the island. Two or three days later when that same family from the rice plantation was able to make its way back to Pawleys Island, one of the very few houses still standing was that house where that family had been and where that young woman had seen a man dressed in gray, perhaps an apparition warning them to leave the island and if they did no harm would come to their house.
Read another account of the Gray Man from The Moonlit Road here.
The Gray Man image courtesy of the family of artist Mary Anne McCarley.