Washington White Whilden, Defender of Lost Causes

A Tale of an Unknown Ghost

Washington White Whilden, born 24 Dec. 1834, Mt Pleasant, Charleston, SC; died 5 Dec. 1886.  The son of Elias Whilden (1799-1869) and Mary Jeffords White (1806-1888).

I stumbled quite by accident upon this scion of an old Bourbon family while I was looking for someone I knew I wouldn't find. 

Perhaps I should explain.  A few months ago, my buttons got righteously pushed by certain folk who make their living just making stuff up and presenting it as history and no one ever calls them on it because it's about a ghost.  After all, what respectable historian is going to get mixed up in a controversy over a ghost?  Not being a historian, respectable or otherwise, I have nevertheless taken up the gauntlet.  

The Southend Brewery occupies the FW Wagener Building at 161 East Bay St.  Since the 1990s, this night spot has been claiming that it is haunted, especially the third floor.  A manager of a local tour agency wrote a book in 2001 about some of the less famous hauntings in Charleston, including this one, fixing these revenants in a particular point in time and circumstance by way of exhaustive historical research.  At least, such is their claim.  

I have no argument with anyone who truly believes they have experienced some sort of brush with the paranormal.  I've never seen a ghost myself, but I do try to keep an open mind.  What I am not so tolerant of are self-styled experts who assures everyone they've done all the legwork, burned the midnight oil and now have all the answers ---just buy this book and you can have them too ---and it just ain't so.  

I read their book and was not impressed with their "evidence".  There is no historical record to be found of wealthy cotton exporter, George Poirier, said to have hung himself on the 3rd floor of the FW Wagener Bldg in the summer of 1885 after watching his last ship explode and burn in Charleston Harbor. It's bad enough to not provide the sources for your data, but these guys had the nerve to go on with lurid details, like--- baling wire was used for his noose, which cut his throat and as blood seeped down to the floorboards, maddened turkey vultures crashed through the windows to get at the corpse!  It's exactly the kind of stuff a 13 year old might dream up at summer camp when everyone's telling ghost stories around the campfire.  

 

In Search Of...

So, I started looking through census records and old city directories for so much as a mention of the supposedly wealthy, high-profile Poirier family, whom they say were so important in antebellum Charleston society.  I found bupkis.  There was a Poirier here and there, but they seemed to be strictly small-time or working class types.  I was pretty sure that's how it would turn out when I started but I dutifully plugged away, just in case.  Don't let this get around, but I have been known to be wrong on occasion.

I had just finished scanning for Poiriers in the 1882 Charleston City Directory and was moving on to 1883 when I tripped over Mr. Whilden.  It was an ad taking up about 1/5 of a page, but what caught my eye was the word "phosphates".  The authors of the book did mix a little historical filler in with their sophomoric fiction, including the fact that phosphates were a big money item in the 1880s, saying George Poirier did a good business along that line.  The ad I was looking at seemed to have everything I had been led to expect with regard to George Poirier, except for two things: 1) the merchant's name was WW Whilden and 2) his business address was not East Bay and Queen Streets but Middle Atlantic Wharf, which was only about a block and a half away.

There were other similar ads on other pages of the directory, but this was the first one that had registered with me.  Based on nothing but pure intuition, I decided that I'd noticed this one for a reason ---and so I started looking for anything I could find on Squire Whilden.       How many pros are out there that work this way?  Hah! 

 

A Poirier By Any Other Name

The more I found, the more Whilden started shaping up like the guy that's supposed to be haunting the Wagener Bldg., not that the tour guide folk had fleshed out his character to any great depth.  Anyway, Whilden departs from the Poirier profile to the extent that he was not just some slacker coasting on his name and inherited money.  There was little left over after the late unpleasantness with the Yankees but he took what he had and started this little business venture.  Apparently, he did well enough to expand his business holdings from "8 Mid-Atlantic Wharf" in 1882 to "8 & 10 Mid-Atlantic Wharf" in 1883.  But everything apparently went downhill from there, and that's when he starts to be more in keeping with the whole Poirier thing.

 Whilden had health issues that were serious enough to force him, in 1883, to leave the business in the hands of his partner, Charles G Matthews.  Within a few months, the firm was being sued by one of their clients over some unspecified malfeasance and forced to pay fines and legal costs.  By 1885, there were ads in the paper announcing CG Matthews was no longer a partner.  Another ad, somewhat later, tried to assure the public that W W Whilden was back in the pink and would soon be running the company at its usual peak efficiency, etc., but I suspect this was just PR happychat.  There are no suviving details that I know of that clarify Whilden's position in the business community, his attempted stratagems or his health problems during this last year of his life.  The most I could glean of this period came from his obit of Dec 6, 1886, which tells us he was "a gallant defender of the Lost Cause", and that since the war he'd been a merchant dealing in naval stores and cotton until his health began to fail three years earlier and more seriously so in the last two months.

 

Sheer Speculation

I've read enough to know that the economy in Charleston wasn't so swell in the mid-1880s.  RRs were compounding the situation even more, taking business away from shipping merchants like Whilden.  In other words, the man's health was slipping precisely at the time the game was getting rougher.  He may well have been one of those stodgy old traditionalists stuck in the "Bourbon way" of doing business, but I suggest desperation may have broadened his horizons somewhat to the point he was willing to strike a deal with the Germans.  

F W Wagener came to Charleston from Germany well before the war.  He, in fact, served in that war with some distinction and so found ready acceptance among the aristocrats and more settled businessmen in Charleston during reconstruction.  Foreigner he may have been, but no carpetbagger was he. Even so, his new ideas were met with condescension until he proved they worked, leaving the aristocratic competition behind, gape-mouthed and blinking.  Pride may have held some back, but I suggest this was one luxury Whilden realized he could no longer afford, and so he approached Wagener.  

Theory: The Wagener Building has a ghost on its third floor, we are told, crackling with light and leaving cold zones here and there.  There was no George Poirier but I think a case could be made for Washington W Whilden becoming involved with the merchants who dwelt there in 1886.  There is no evidence that I know of to support any of this, but even that can be explained.  The vagaries of the business world, past and present, I admit, are a mystery to me, so I'm not even going to try to delve into all that here.  All we need know is that Whilden could have worked out some kind of deal with the Wageners and believed he was on the road to salvation. Unfortunately, on August 31 of that very year, a huge earthquake struck Charleston and I am going to speculate that it somehow destroyed the deal ---the Wageners found themselves in a bind and decided to back out since no formal papers had yet been signed (I'm trying to make this sound like I know what I'm talking about --how'm I doin'?).  I visualize a confrontation between the two parties in mid-September, an argument flared and became emotional. Seeing his last chance for solvency slipping away, Whilden felt suddenly overwhelmed and suffered a paralytic stroke right there in the third floor offices of the Wagener Building.

Somehow, Whilden was bundled off to his home on Rutledge Avenue or perhaps to his own office a couple of blocks away.  Whilden's collapse didn't make the papers, so the Germans were able to maintain discretion on their part in the matter.  Whilden himself, meanwhile, was lost in a mental haze of intense emotion, fixated on his perceived betrayal by the Wageners.  Over and over the confrontation in the Wagener Bldg replays in his head, skewing all sense of time and reality.  Finally, on the afternoon of Dec 5, 1886, Whilden slipped off this mortal coil.

Where he might have gone after that is a matter I am not the least bit competent to speak on with any authority.  But I have to, because it's the point of this whole project, isn't it?  Bearing in mind it's only a theory, I say the vengeful spirit of Wash Whilden haunts the site of his final humiliation to this day ---the third floor of the F W Wagener Building at 161 East Bay St.

                                                                                         ---Author:  Richard Fowler

F W Wagener Building ---161 East Bay St.