The Tale of Lady Skipwith

Posted on August 15, 2017


Many things must haunt a mind when it approaches ghosts. The first being that the mind itself has many tricks. Men can weave stories out of events so disconnected from each other that many would think them mad. Our most rigorous maths have shown us how truly random the universe can be. It is the unusual that grabs us and the unlikely that captures our imagination. And as we discover facts that make us question the very foundations of our reality, is it any wonder that we always enjoy a good ghost story?

Ghosts continue to intrigue us, but they’re lonely, fragmented, disconnected things, aren’t they? Small pieces of a forgotten past. Some are terrified, sobbing voices in the night. Others are the quiet tap of small feet ascending aged stairs. Still more are just drips. Silence… then a wet dripping. That’s it. That’s all that remains of that soul in our world. There are many explanations for what ghosts are. Some say they are the echoes of spirits. Or trapped spirits. Or angry spirits. However, one thing is perfectly clear: they are human spirits.

In every tale of a ghostly apparition is a small slice of human life. Just for a second, don’t you glimpse that spirit? That person. As you continue to read, please keep this quote in mind:

Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.” -John Milton

Yes, Milton is the type of spectre you’d raise in order to discuss spirits, and that’s not even a drunken writer joke. Milton spoke of the efficacy of the intellect being preserved in books, and there is a truth in that, but where do you preserve the life that that intellect represented? Do we preserve that life? Or, perhaps, that’s exactly what Milton meant, for what is the person without their context? Who are we without our stories?

Books are stories about our thoughts; ghost stories are stories about our lives. They remind us, for a moment, of the past, and that is an invaluable service. There is so much to be learned in our history, especially the history of the macabre: the realm of the spirits. If you’re a non-believer, then you can see the utility in that, but we must question all sides of all things, so, inevitably we must ask: do ghosts cause stories or do stories cause ghosts?

Ghosts are most often reported near the places where they lived in life. If the original structures of their time still stand, then the meta-data suggests that a ghost is more likely to appear. Old structures don’t cause ghosts, but they do echo the lives of the people those ghosts represent. Is that echo what calls them? As the structures, backgrounds and memories of their lives are conjured, are they evoked, as well? Do we better attune ourselves to the past by writing its story large in the architecture of our world? If so, it’s not a common privilege, but it is one enjoyed by Colonial Williamsburg. Yet, should these vague notions prove true, they must also enjoy the privilege of being haunted by the spirits of the past.

So, why this place, specifically? Because, there are few more evocative maelstroms of the macabre and the historic than Williamsburg, VA. The Civil War stands as one of the bloodiest wars in American history; it foreshadowed the looming spectre that industrialized warfare would erect over humanity during the first World War. The implications of that conflict alone should illustrate the vibrancy of the palette with which the history of the land is painted. Even before the Civil War, Williamsburg was known for being the capital of Virginia and for its progressive approach to education in the new world. It was a group of students from The College of William & Mary that convinced the government of Jamestown to move the capital to Williamsburg, which was then called Middle Plantation. If you’ll recall, this was after a fire in Jamestown destroyed the statehouse. See? Vibrant history.

These are stories that must be remembered, because they grant us windows into the past and into the fabric that wove our modern world. So, let’s evoke these spirits and remember the dead that walked before us. If that small piece of the past can be wrested from Time, then perhaps we can grasp some understanding from whatever may be encountered in the streets where our history is made manifest. But, remember, also, that it may be that memory of this history that calls them to you.

Ready to find out who some of “them” are? Maybe, if we look hard enough, we can start to understand the even more arcane manifestations of humanity that we call ghosts. Maybe we’ll even find out what was dripping.

There are depths to knowledge; revelation can drive you to madness just as easily as epiphany. Some question the difference between the two, excepting the utility of one over the other, but the threat of Lovecraftian horror must not obscure the spirits of the past. If you keep reading,we’ll begin in the house of the man who began the restoration project that became Colonial Williamsburg: Doctor William Archer Rutherfoord Goodwin.

The Place:

W.A.R. Goodwin was a man of the cloth, a historian, an author and a firm believer in the souls that mingle with the many minds of Williamsburg. In 1907, as a pastor, he actively helped complete the restoration of Bruton Parish Church, just in time for the 300th anniversary of the establishment of the Episcopal Church in nearby Jamestown. In 1909, he accepted another position and moved to Rochester, New York, but his life in Williamsburg was far from over.

He would eventually return, reportedly stricken by the history that crumbled in the buildings around him. In 1924, he began the restoration project that would eventually become Colonial Williamsburg. With funding and support from John Rockefeller Jr. and  Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Goodwin and his local team started buying up property and began the restoration in earnest. Goodwin would eventually pass away in 1939; his body was buried in his beloved parish.

Why is this man an important fixture in our story? He began the project that has given us a window into the lives of the spirits of Colonial Williamsburg, but, more specifically, he was the last living person to truly inhabit the Wythe House before its transformation. The property was acquired by Colonial Williamsburg in 1938, but Miss Skipwith’s tale occurred far before that time. The Wythe House has its own stories. Hell, it was owned by George Wythe:  he signed The Declaration of Independence. There are many spirits that roam these halls.

Wythe House Lady Skipwith

The Incidents: At The Wythe House, Attributed To Lady Skipwith, or Lady Ann Skipwith

(Ghost stories aren’t usually considered official history. They’re seen as referencing history, not defining it. That’s fine; tangential learning thrives deep in the soul of story-telling. Incidents are necessarily second-hand, but these are the most agreed-upon details.)

-If you stick around until the Witching Hour, it is said that the midnight silence may be violently broken by a strange, unwieldy thumping noise on the stairs. Straining yours ears against the stillness, you might recognize the sound of hampered foot-steps in the night.

-Others have told strange tales of a ghostly female, clad in a beautiful Colonial dress, that looks at herself in the mirror before vanishing from sight.

-Occasionally, the smell of an unknown woman’s perfume lingers lazily in the air.

The Story:

This tale has always started at a ball in the Governor’s mansion. Raucous gamesters and libations aplenty filled the air with the background roar of a busy night out. Lady Ann(e) Skipwith bobbed along in the turbulent atmosphere with her husband, Sir Peyton Skipwith. At some point during the night, a conflict between the two frothed over and Lady Ann(e) fled into the gloom.

In her haste, she broke the heel of one of her shoes. It’s said that she wore the other shoe up the stairs and into her quarters at the Wythe House, so it probably broke near the door. Imagine it: anger, frustration and despair have seized your mind and your world is a maddening haze of dark shapes in the night as you wander home, alone. Then, near your place of refuge, your heel gives out from under you and breaks. How much worse is that to a frenzied mind? How much more unfair and arbitrary must it make life seem to have that happen to you now, in a moment of utter indignation?

There are details that are never provided and that life will not furnish answers to. Did she sit there and seethe, sobs breaking through her helpless rage? Was her anger cold and withering? How were the last moments of Lady Ann(e)? How did she approach the act that the story always brings her to: the taking of her own life? And why was she so far away from those jubilant sounds of life?

Most tellings suggest that elicit relations between her husband and her sister, Jean (Miller) Peyton, caused the tragically fatal clash between Sir Peyton and Lady Ann(e), a perspective speciously supported by the fact that he married Jean soon after Lady Anne’s death. But, those as twenty-first century speculations and we must finish the story before we crack the history.

Although, this is actually where Lady Ann(e)’s story ends. It’s said that she committed suicide, although the gruesome details are left to our imagination. Perhaps, it’s best that way. Those moments are personal; they belong more to her than to history. Her body was reported to be resting in the nearby Bruton Parish Churchyard.

The True History:

The question is, does Lady Skipwith belong to history at all? If you cross-reference the names of the sisters, Jean andAnn(e), you can discover their historical doppelgängers. Anne (Miller) Peyton died in child-birth, in 1779, and she’s not buried in the Bruton Parish Churchyard. Her husband did end up marrying her younger sister, but, clearly, she did not commit suicide. She was a living person, though, so why the story?

Well, because the story was meant to explain the unexplained events at Wythe House. The Ghost of Lady Ann(e) is an attractive explanation for those disjointed happenings, but discovering that the person we’ve chosen to explain those events wasn’t involved with them shouldn’t relieve our minds: it should send them whirling, looking for other explanations. Just as importantly, it should make us wonder why the explanation makes so much sense. That story is a cross-section of history; our understanding of the life of Lady Ann(e), as she exists in the story, is the echo of history that calls the spirit to us.

Those apparitions are pieces of a very human experience, and their implications chill us in ways that are both primal and existential. It is a macabre tale, because it calls upon a dead heroine. The smell of perfume has an element of sophistication about it; it is a reminder of social mores and the intoxicating immediacy of human relationships.

The visions give us context for our spirit; they’re the pieces that root this ghost firmly in the past. That alone should give us pause, because even the gulf of time isn’t enough to separate us from the portrait of human despair that this story paints.

Yet, it is the sound on the stairs that truly troubles: it is frantic, and it is unwieldy, because that was the character of those moments. One may read despair in her story, because despair may drive someone to defect from the living to the dead, but that explanation is not objective truth. Honestly, we only have a small window into what ultimately drives people. It’s frightening how arbitrary life and death can seem when all we see is our life. Ghost stories help bring clarity to the world that we inhabit and must, ultimately, leave. Ghosts are history; they are the stories of lives that have come before us.

Apparitions are the pieces of those lives, and we seem to call them to us when we remember their stories. They don’t seem to care if we get the names right. (Then again, if a haunting doesn’t cease, maybe they do.) Their stories are the events they exemplify, not the faces we give to them. Maybe some spirits care, maybe some spirits Can care. It’s hard to know. What we do know is that the scent and the sight and the sounds on the stairs have embedded themselves in our cultural memory.

One has to hope that the sounds are a lady with a missing shoe and not the unsteady gait of the person who ended our ghostly vision’s life. We can’t really know for sure: all we have are stories. Remember our tale as you listen to the many others that are spun from the spirits in Williamsburg, VA. Maybe if you’re lucky, and you remember the lives that thrived in the Wythe House, you’ll experience something in Colonial Williamsburg that will add new depth to our current story of spurned love and ultimate loss.

There’s plenty more to know about this house and the lands that surround it. Many, many macabre tales and lands saturated with history surround Williamsburg and the events that have taken place there. This is just the beginning. Next time, we’ll quickly saw through the meat and immerse ourselves more completely in the ghosts of Colonial Williamsburg.