The White Witch of Rose Hall is perhaps one of the most enduring ghost stories to ever come out of Jamaica. It also gives an interesting insight into how a ghost story evolves. Rose Hall was regarded as the grandest big house in Jamaica during the 1800s. Today, it is a popular tourist attraction, many visitors coming to admire it’s gorgeous decor and surroundings. But that’s not all the tourists come for. Rose Hall is also associated to an incredibly bloody and sadistic legend which has gripped people for decades. Such is it’s notoriety that Peter Underwood mentions it in passing in his autobiography, No Common Task: The Autobiography of a Ghost-hunter. And it fascinated Johnny Cash to the extent that he wrote a song about it, ‘The Ballad of Annie Palmer’. Cash spent six months of each year living in his Jamaican home, Cinnamon Hill, near to Rose Hall. He was a believer in the spirit world and was convinced his own house was haunted, never mind Rose Hall! Cinnamon Hill has been left exactly as it was when Cash died.
But first, a little history is required to give some background to the lurid tale. The area of Rose Hall was established as a sugar plantation called True Friendship in 1746 by Henry Fanning. A short time later, he married Rosa Kelly, a local pastor’s daughter, but didn’t last much longer as he died 6 months after their nuptials. Rosa inherited the plantation, marrying a further two times before her final wedding to John Palmer in 1767, making that four hubbies in total. John and Rosa Palmer built Rose Hall between 1770 and 1780. Rose Hall was inherited by John Palmer’s great-nephew, John Rose Palmer, who in 1820, married Annie May Patterson. She died in either 1831 or 1832, allegedly murdered. Coincidentally, this was also the time of a slave revolt in Jamaica
There are various versions of the legend, most of which are in accordance with one another. The only one which is markedly different is that of Peter Underwood’s, which which we’ll look at first. Underwood moves the story back a few decades, apparently making the first John Palmer and his great nephew the same person. John and his wife Rosa had spent several happy years at Rosehall, They were a much loved and admired couple, who treated their servants and slaves decently. John was devastated when Rosa died. He was 72. Shortly after Rosa’s death, he was captivated by 28 year old Annie Paterson. Soon they were married. Annie already had a track record. John was her fourth husband. Her previous three had all died in seemingly strange circumstances, leaving Annie increasingly powerful and rich with each death. They had died, writes Underwood ‘…of drink, madness and apoplexy respectively…’ and notes that it was believed Annie had killed them with the aid of a witchdoctor.
With her arrival, the happy atmosphere of Rose Hall soon evaporated. Tales travelled of all sorts of goings on. Annie was a cruel woman. She treated the slaves abysmally and they were terrified of her. She often took a good looking slave as her personal servant, who would have every comfort given them until Annie got bored with them. And they’d disappear. Her husband, who was ill, couldn’t control her. Annie was also rumoured to have ‘a bit of a thing’ for her attractive young stepson, It came out, via a jealous overseer seeking revenge after he lost favour, that the stepson had an eye on a beautiful mulatto slave girl. On hearing this, Annie had the girl viscously killed, something slave owners could do with no legal repercussions at the time. Annie watched. And enjoyed. The end result was the stepson fled. Annie eventually became persona non grata amongst Jamaica’s high society thanks to the stories of screams and howls coming from the plantation yard, where Annie would whip and torture slaves.
One day, the slaves had enough and murdered Annie in her bed. Her bones were cast away under a tree. And this is why it is believed she haunted Rose Hall, The Hall was abandoned when John Palmer died. Screams could be heard coming from the empty rooms…
Underwood notes that the final caretaker died after breaking his neck falling down the cellar stairs. Though locals said he was pushed by Annie’s ghost.
As for the other versions of the legend? Well, they all bear the stain of wanton cruelty and torture. Perhaps the best known version, and pretty much what is told by Rose Hall tour guides (the only difference being they put Annie’s origins in Haiti), start by asking was Annie already cruel by time she reached Rose Hall? The Parisian origin version of the tale argues that she only became cruel as she found life in Jamaica hard and missed the bright lights of Paris. Although it also mentions that Annie had a Haitian nanny who taught her Voodoo as a child. The same nanny then adopted and raised her following the mysterious death of Annie’s parents when she was 10. Along similar lines, the Haitian version says that while growing up in Haiti, Annie became a favourite of a Voodoo priestess, who taught her. But yet another has that in order to placate her, slaves who followed the religion taught Annie all they knew. Either way she became a renowned, powerful witch, known as the White Witch of Jamaica. The type of Voodoo she practised was of the particularly nasty sort – involving human sacrifice, especially young children. She used the bones in her rituals*.
Annie’s husband, John, died soon after she married him, thanks to her poisoning him. She gained a further two husbands, neither of them lasting long. Their deaths were down to Annie too – one was stabbed to death, and the other had boiling hot oil poured into his ear. With their deaths, Annie became richer and even more powerful. Really, the Underwood version turned backwards. Annie was still cruel to her slaves. She would whip and torture them, even condemning them to death. A perceived infraction could mean death. Every day, she would stand on the balcony of Rose Hall, the slaves gathered in the grounds before her, and she would give orders. This would include whippings, torture and death. In addition to this, she would regularly ride around the plantation on her black stallion, some say in men’s clothes. The horse was known as ‘three legs’ because she tied white cloth around three of it’s legs. Again, she would be on the look out for ‘misbehaviour’ so she could enjoy the punishment.
And that’s not all Annie would do. Every version of the myth portrays her as having a voracious sexual appetite, including Underwood’s if we think of her fixation with her stepson. Instead of taking ‘personal servants’ from male slaves she found attractive, as Peter Underwood describes, every other rendition of the tale has her take male slaves as sexual objects. These men, she’d tire of quickly, and they’d soon meet a nasty end at Annie’s own hands in her bedroom. They would then be buried in unmarked graves. Her sexual cravings led to her downfall. One particular young slave Annie set her sights on was an attractive young man engaged to be married to the daughter of the plantation’s overseer. The overseer was in fact a powerful Voodoo Obeah or priest, something he hid from Annie in order to protect himself. He knew what Annie did to her slave lovers, and took some steps to protect his prospective son-in-law from the same fate.
However, things didn’t go to plan. Annie would normally stretch out her time with her lovers before she tired of them. This time, she had her pleasure and killed the young man on the same night. This might be because he rejected Annie by saying he was in love with another woman. As it was, his death devastated his fiancée. Her father, the overseer, decided that things had to end for Annie Palmer. A grave was prepared in front of the house, using Voodoo ritual and markings. Then the overseer went into the house and confronted Annie. She came outside and fought with him, physically and magically. She was killed, and placed in the grave. The overseer also died.
Not surprisingly, there is an alternate version of Annie’s death. Allegedly, she was beginning to find that sex with ordinary men wasn’t satisfying her and nothing would do but the ‘prowess’ of the devil himself. One night, slaves heard her screaming in her bedroom. They ran to the door, which was locked. One looked through the keyhole and saw Baron Samidi, the Voodoo devil, standing in Annie’s blood soaked bedroom. The slave was immediately blinded. Annie’s bedroom door was broken down and she was found lying, strangled to death.
Annie’s tomb is specifically designed to stop her from rising and walking Rose Hall again, although it apparently hasn’t worked as it is believed her spirit haunts the plantation. The grave has the cross marked on it on three sides so that if her ghost walks, it can go back into the grave if she chooses. The crucifixes otherwise bar her spirit. It’s not only Annie’s ghost said to walk Rose Hall. The ghosts of her victims accompany her…
Tales of hauntings at Rose Hall abound. Doors slam of their own volition. Blood curdling screams can be heard. Disembodied footsteps in the hall. Annie’s apparition has been seen both in the house and roaming the grounds on her black stallion, ‘Three Legs’. Locals living in the area have passed the stories down from generation to generation. Some staff working in Rose Hall today are just a little apprehensive. Tourists have reported strange things happening in the photos they take. Regularly, people report a woman’s face reflecting back from the headboard on Annie’s bed. She and other strange things are captured in her mirror. And interesting things being caught in the hallway. These are regularly sent back to Rose Hall and displayed in a case in the gift shop.
There have also been many visits from mediums and psychics over the years, trying to contact the spirit of Annie Palmer. Renowned medium Eileen Garrett, famous for predicting the R101 disaster, visited in 1952, reporting Annie as appearing to her with black hair and striking blue eyes. Garrett said Annie looked to be in her 40s when she died. The spirit apparently told Garrett she knew she was in danger and tried to escape. Annie then added that because of the way she died, no children would be born in Rose Hall, nor would anything grow or flourish. Well, apart from the thriving tourist business within the estate since it was bought and restored by a couple from Maryland! In 1971, a group of psychics visited the tomb in an effort to lay Annie’s ghost, but didn’t have any luck. It was they who marked the 3 crucifixes on the tomb. A few years later in 1978, 8,000 people arrived to watch a variety of world famous mediums try to contact Annie. No peace in the afterlife…
But, it doesn’t end there. In 2008, an article was published on the White Witch of Rose Hall in the Fortean Times. It’s author Benjamin Radford dug a little further into to legend. And what he came up with was quite striking, not to mention indicative of the crazy flights a major ghost story can take. First of all, Radford noted that much of the legend could be found in a 1929 novel by Herbert G. de Lisser. The novel, which de Lisser writes has basis in fact, blends in much of the legend’s tropes. Also, Radford links the stories of Annie’s cruelty and torture to Rev. Hope Waddell, an abolitionist (i.e. someone who campaigned against the practice of slavery) who conducted interviews with slaves at Rose Hall in 1830. Waddell had heard rumours of abuse. An 1860s Jamaican newspaper report referred to Waddell’s subsequent report, giving credence to the the tale.
Radford didn’t stop there. He also researched the histories of the people involved in the story, and says the actual story of Annie Palmer can be found in a 1965 report by Geoffrey Yates of the Jamaican Archives entitled Rose Hall: Death of a Legend. And yes. It rips the whole story to shreds. Yates found that Annie Palmer was born Annie May Paterson in England in 1802. In her childhood she came to the Caribbean, leading quite an ordinary (and Voodoo lesson free) childhood. In 1820, at 18 years old, she married John Rose Palmer and the two lived in Rose Hall. They were not rich and he died in 1827 in great debt, leaving hardly anything for Annie. He was 42. Annie left Rose Hall for another part of Jamaica and didn’t remarry. She died of natural causes and was buried in Montego Bay churchyard in 1846. The ‘tomb’ outside Rose Hall is actually empty. Radford argues that the legends of Annie Palmer and her many husbands mix her up with the earlier Rosa Palmer, who had 4 husbands. Except Rosa didn’t practice Voodoo. Or murder her husbands. Annie’s John Palmer isn’t buried in an unmarked grave on the estate as his burial is recorded in the parish register.
The whole rise of the legend Radford puts down to ‘classic legend making’, mixing up historical facts with outlandish fiction. He is very damning of previous researchers into the legend, criticising them for not looking more deeply into the story: “As always, it’s much easier to simply repeat legends and myths without making any effort to separate fact from fancy,”
As for the ‘haunting’, Radford says there is no haunting. The ghost of ‘malicious’ Annie Palmer does not exist. It is all a flight of fancy, and suggestion on the part of the psychics such as Eileen Garrett who ‘contacted’ Annie. The ghostly experiences involving the furniture in ‘Annie’s room’ don’t convince him as it’s all replica. The originals were destroyed in a fire years ago. As for the photos, he argues that what appears in them are common phenomenon in photography which are often taken to be paranormal. This includes light flares, light bleed, camera straps suddenly getting in front of the lens, etc. He says that people are aware of the fact there is a lot of myth in the ghost story, thanks to de Lissers book, arguing that the mistake is believing there is some truth to it But Radford keeps his most damning criticism for the nasty legends that circulate about one ordinary woman: “Though the ghost of Annie Palmer – like the Annie Palmer she was based on – is a fiction, the story of the White Witch of Rose Hall has left victims (and not just the credibility of some writers and psychics). The legacy of an innocent woman has been forever blighted by careless research and false accusations.” He continues at the end of his article, “Imagine if, a century from now, due to some strange mix of myth and circumstance, people were to describe you (Radford’s emphasis) as a cruel, perverted, sadistic serial killer, and psychics confirm it, relaying your sensational confessions to the public.”
Certainly food for thought next time you hear a crazy ghost story. Plenty of this ilk abound. While, as is the ethos of Ghostly Aspects, it is good not to over judge a ghost story, perhaps there are cases, such as this, where we need to ask questions.
*I want to clarify a few things about Voodoo, which has a lot of negative stereotypes, that feature heavily in the story. I read up a lot on Voodoo as an anthropology student and I believe the negative stereotyping is really unfair. The popular image of the religion as demonic, black magic and evil is pretty much a myth. It does have a slightly dark side, but it’s nowhere near what it’s made out to be. It’s a syncretic religion – as in it takes in forms of other religions. In this case, it’s the amalgamation of Catholicism and Yoruba religion. There are many different varieties of it, from Haitian to Louisiana (ie New Orleans and Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen) and Cadomblé in Brazil. It does feature sacrifices, though ordinarily chickens or goats, which is something you find with many indigenous religions across the world. It’s still practised widely, and is known under a variety of names, such as Vodun, Vodou etc. A good book to check out on the topic is Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn, by Karen McCarthy Brown. More information on Voodoo in general can be found doing a search on line, which I thoroughly recommend doing.
Ghost Adventures Rose Hall episode http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rMCXFDF4aks&feature=related
Johnny Cash “The Ballad of Annie Palmer” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YOSU5WMkOpo
Retelling of the legend in a short Jamaican film http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UCBUT3apnOU
Underwood, Peter (1983) No Common Task:The Autobiography of a Ghost-hunter London: Harrap
The White Witch of Rose Hall, Benjamin Radford, Fortean Times 239, Aug 2008, pp 44 – 49
Ghost Adventures Rose Hall episode http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rMCXFDF4aks&feature=related
The White Witch of Rose Hall – Scaryplaces.com
http://www.reggaeshow.com/rosehall.htm – Pictures and visit of Rose Hall
http://www.rosehallresort.com/index.cfm Hilton Rose Hall Resort