Thoughts of Christmas past evoke memories. Memories call forth spirits of loved ones waiting in the wings to rejoin the festivities. At Merrehope in Meridian, Mississippi, brightly lit Christmas trees seek to dispel the gloomy days in the aftermath of the Civil War.
On property deeded to her from her father, Juriah Jackson and her husband built a three-room cottage, now the rear, ground-floor rooms of the current mansion. During the Civil War, Confederate general Leonidas Polk set up headquarters here. In February of 1864, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, adhering to his scorched earth campaign, set the torch to Meridian because it had a Confederate arsenal. After five days, Sherman declared, “Meridian . . . no longer exists.” Juriah’s cozy cottage was one of only six homes left unscathed by the time the Union troops moved out.
By 1868, the home returned to private hands. John Gary of Alabama did the first major expansion, adding porches to the front of the house with ruby glass in the main entrance. In 1881, J. C. Lloyd, his wife, and thirteen children began a twenty-three-year residence. In 1908, S. H. Floyd “modernized” the house, installing five bathrooms, electric lights, a stairway, and wainscoting. Floyd also pushed back Juriah’s original cottage to make room for a grand dining room. Owners number six, the Gossetts, took possession in 1915. Otto Tibbette reshuffled the floor plan in 1930 and turned the former lovely home into eight apartments. After seven owners and numerous configurations, the stalwart women of the Meridian Restorations Foundation arrived to face bullet-riddled rooms, glass shards from a former resident’s whiskey bottle rampage, and several cantankerous ghosts.
“If you want to know the truth,” says hostess Donna White, “when I first came to work here, they kept the whole haunted thing pretty quiet. It was kind of hush-hush; nobody told me anything.” The novice hostess had been on site less than three weeks when she realized things weren’t what they seemed. “First thing in the morning you make your rounds. I went into the Periwinkle room. I stopped dead in my tracks. There was the perfect imprint of a body on the bed. I ran downstairs and called one of the other ladies, and she asked me, ‘What’s wrong?’ I told her what I saw, and she just mumbled something like ‘Well, this stuff happens.’” Donna was shaken; it was her first paranormal experience. She stayed downstairs for a while and avoided the upstairs bedrooms. Her reluctance prompted the manger to ask, “You are not going to quit are you?” Donna replied, “No, I’ll hang in here.”
In time, Donna adjusted to the weird quirks and habits of the resident ghosts, including the one who persisted in taking a midmorning nap. “I would open the door to the Periwinkle room and fuss at him. ‘I hope you had a nice rest, but I really don’t like cleaning up after people, so how about next time you straighten up.’” This specter had unresolved issues that ended in a gruesome exit.
In the 1930s, one of the renters in the former mansion turned apartment building was a schoolteacher with two deadly demons—drinking and gambling. The manic-depressive was out of control. “One night,” reports Donna, “he lined up some whiskey bottles on the wood mantle, shot them off, and then shot himself.” His reckless behavior continues in the afterlife.
“We were getting ready for a Christmas party. There was a really big crash upstairs like someone had knocked over an armoire.” Donna suspected that an intruder had gotten into the house. Outraged, she decided to trap the bumbling thief. “I ran around and locked the side door. I grabbed the telephone to call the manager and tell her I was going upstairs to see who ever it was and get them out of here. She’s on the phone and she says, ‘You’re not going up there.’ I said, ‘Yes, I am.’” Donna marched up the front stairs to find nothing—nothing broken, nothing out of place, nothing fallen over. Realization dawned. Hands on her hips, the unfazed hostess planted her feet in the hall between the bedrooms. She barked out orders. “Don’t’ get upset. There’s a party tonight, so just behave. We don’t want to spook the guests.” She softened briefly and let the teacher’s troubled spirit know that if he behaved, he could “come down and join us.” He didn’t take Donna up on her invitation, but, says the pacified hostess, “It stayed quiet up there for the rest of the night.”
This holiday season set a place at the table in honor of loved ones lost, previous owners and their guests. As you ring in the New Year lift your glass and toast all those who came before. Let the past and present mingle and merge. Celebrate life in all its forms.