At midnight, almost 25 years ago, I called on one of Jamaica's most prominent ghosts.
On a hill 10 miles from Montego Bay stood the skeletal relic of Rose Hall, once the most magnificent home on the island. It was rumored to house the restless spirit of Annie Palmer, known as the White Witch of Rose Hall.
The moon was full (as it usually is in ghost stories) when I reached the high gate that barred the entrance to the estate. It was padlocked with a heavy, hand-pounded chain. Annie had already cast a spell of overwhelming curiosity over me, so I chose the only way in--up and over.
Through the palm trees that lined the path to the house, the sea wind mumbled as if to announce my coming to someone up ahead. The night breezes were warm, but I shivered.
Ahead of me stood the remains of Rose Hall--grim, brooding and foreboding. It stared back at me with its empty-window eyes, daring me to come closer.
A barbed-wire fence girdled the decaying mansion, and a posted sign warned visitors to enter at their own risk because of crumbling walls and rotting roof. My sleeve caught on one of the wire barbs as I squeezed through.
Cautiously I stepped to the interior of the house. The floors had long since rotted away as had most of the housetop. The moon, shining through the latticework of what was left of the roof, made phantom white footprints over the timbers and hunks of masonry that had collapsed and fallen to the ground over the years.
About 200 years ago this great house, built at a cost of more than $150,000, had been lavishly splendid. Spacious piazzas and corridors and an elegant double flight of steps welcomed visitors.
The house had 365 windows, one for each day of the year; 52 doors, one for each week of the year; 12 staircases, one for each month of the year. It was a showplace, one of the grand and glorious Jamaican estates.
Its last mistress, Annie Palmer, was a lustful, evil woman who committed atrocious murders within its walls. Supposedly endowed with the powers of black magic, she worked her slaves to death and also killed them and her many lovers for the sadistic pleasure of watching them die.
She was finally strangled and buried in a nearby grave by someone who had braved her powers of witchcraft. The legend is that she roamed the ruins, dressed in white garments, unable to rest in peace.
Recalling the story, I shivered again and glanced at my watch. It was midnight. If Annie was going to make an appearance, the time was now.
The wind rattled a few loose boards and moved a few light pebbles around. I peered into the dark corners to make sure that " 'twas the wind and nothing more." The old timbers groaned and creaked. And I waited in uneasy suspense.
Suddenly there was a light tap on my shoulder. Every hair on my head straightened out. Positive that I'd see a shrouded specter with a bony finger, I peeked cautiously out of the corner of my eye. A chip of rotted wood had fallen from the ceiling and landed on my shoulder. I brushed it off hurriedly and began to breathe again.
Somewhere in this house was supposed to be a deep hole that led to an underground tunnel to the sea. No one had found it yet. But tonight, it might be just my luck to discover it . . . the hard way.
Through one of the windows I stared as the bushes outside rustled. Someone or something was coming through. Swallowing hard, I watched hypnotized as the brush parted and out stepped--a cow. The house was completely open, so they probably took shelter here.
A Few More Gray Hairs
For two hours more I endured such scare-raising moments. Each branch scratching the wall sprouted a few more gray hairs on my head. But nary an Annie did I see.
Yet there are ghosts at Rose Hall. You can't see them, to be sure, but somehow you feel that they're near.
Perhaps they sit unseen on the thick wattle-and-daub walls that separate the rooms, or maybe they're the ones who make sounds like faint echoes of footsteps coming down the crumbling stairs.
But a mournful ghost that you could really sense was the house itself. Its haggard, bare bones begged to be either torn down or restored to some semblance of health.
As I walked back to the entrance gate, the cavernous window eyes stared sightlessly and hauntingly in my direction.
The next morning I awoke to find that I had lost my voice with a case of laryngitis. They told me that colds were extremely rare in Jamaica . . . or was it just a cold? After all, Annie doesn't live there anymore . . . or does she?
The Great House of Rose Hall has been restored at a cost of more than $1 million since that visit in 1962 and visitors now tour the mansion, perhaps also hoping to catch a glimpse of Annie Palmer, who is still said to roam the hallways.