One slow Friday evening in 2012, I decided to make the 15-minute drive to Rose Hall Great House for their night tour. I was excited.
Years earlier, I’d done the day tour of this great house that’s reputed to be haunted by the ghost of one of its former owners but I had no idea what to expect on the night tour. Would I see a ghost (or duppy) as we call them here in Jamaica?
My pulse quickened as we pulled through the security gate and I saw the great house sprouting out of the hill. I hurried to the ticket window but was crushed when the attendant said they were closed for a wedding reception.
Who’d want to celebrate a joyous beginning in a place rumored to be, and advertised, as haunted? I asked myself as I walked away, aching with disappointment. I didn’t realize until then how much I had been looking forward to the tour.
Disappointment still fresh in my mind, this time I called before heading out. Good thing too because I found out that I could get a $4 discount off the regular US$20 admission price by booking online.
As my friend and I passed through Rose Hall’s manned gate – day or night, it’s quite an impressive view – I stopped and took this photo of the imposing great house whose blacked out windows and muted lights give it a spooky air.
But I was skeptical. Can this old house, with its claim to a violent past, release some of its restless spirits on command? How does a property satisfy visitors who’re looking to be scared witless?
Our group, about seven, met our tour guide at Annie’s Treasures, the gift shop on the property and started the short walk along a torch-lit path to the back of the house. Except for a few lights here and there, the grounds were pitch black.
As we got closer, someone screamed.
“A woman! A wo-wo-woman in the window!”
I looked in the direction she pointed but didn’t see a thing. Could it have been Annie? We weren’t sure.
In advertising and marketing, it’s the hook – that story or idea that draws one in or sets one product apart from the rest. In the case of Rose Hall Great House, the story of Annie Palmer, the so-called White Witch of Rose Hall, has become so entwined with the facts, so wildly successful, it’s getting to be difficult to separate fact from fiction.
One story is that Annie Patterson, an English woman, came to Jamaica at 18 in search of a husband. Following the death from yellow fever of her parents in Haiti, Annie’s nanny, a voodoo priestess cared for the girl and taught her the tricks of her trade. By the time of her arrival on the island, she was a voodoo expert.
In another story, Annie was French. (The family being French probably quieted those who wondered what a British family was doing living in Haiti, a French-speaking country.)
Whatever. This much is indisputable: There was an Annie who married John Rose Palmer, grandnephew of and heir to John Palmer’s 6,500-acre estate and 2,000 slaves.
The estate had passed to John Palmer from his wife, Rosa. It included Rose Hall Great House, a Georgian mansion, that was built in 1750 by Rosa’s second husband, George Ash. Rose Hall was designed as a ‘calendar’ house, with 365 windows, 52 doors and 12 bedrooms.
Entering Rose Hall’s Dungeon
We entered the house from the dungeon, or Annee’s Pub (that isn’t a typo), and Rose Hall’s photographer asked each of us to pose for a photo on the back steps of the great house. (There were “No Photography” signs posted all around the property. I don’t remember them being there when I took the day tour years ago.) We could buy the photo, if we liked, for $10 at the end of the tour.
Fortified sufficiently by Witches Brew, a rum and fruit juice concoction I bought in the Pub, our tour guide began describing Annie’s alleged 11-year reign of terror at Rose Hall. According to our guide, whose name I have totally forgotten, Annie would banish disobedient slaves to be tortured and murdered in the dungeon.
Hearing that, I expected to see a few vengeful spirits – but none appeared. Disappointed, we moved from the dungeon, and as we did, I noticed a figure dressed in white. It was a slave woman – or a contemporary woman dressed like a slave – her bonneted head lowered, she whistled as her bare feet shuffled against the wooden floor.
Our guide explained that slaves were required to whistle as they served so they couldn’t eat or spit into their masters’ food.
At one point, as she showed us a passage now blocked off, that led to the sea – it’s how they believe Takoo, the slave who ended Annie’s life, entered Rose Hall – a male slave bolted out, slamming the door loudly behind him. It was so absolutely unexpected I almost jumped out of my skin.
If the stories of Annie’s brutality are to be believed, it begs the question: what would motivate a young woman to perpetrate such unspeakable acts of cruelty? Even given the times when savagery on slave plantations was an everyday occurrence, the story of Annie’s acts are shocking and revolting.
According to the legend, Annie was a firm and sadistic owner who killed John Rose Palmer, her first husband after he beat her with his riding whip. Palmer had discovered her dalliance with one of his slaves. The unfortunate man didn’t live to see the light of the following day. Annie supposedly killed him with a potion.
She went on to marry and dispatch two more husbands – no names mentioned and no reasons given — in different rooms at Rose Hall. A similar fate befell several slave lovers, who it is said she grew tired of quickly, as well as slaves who didn’t bend to her will. According to our guide, she would order the slaves to dispose of her kills only to murder them herself.
The slaves were so fearful of Annie’s power, they named her the White Witch. One, however, was immune to her and that was her undoing. As the story goes, sometime in 1831, Takoo, her lover, found his way into the house under the cover of darkness and strangled Annie in retaliation for the killing of his beloved granddaughter. Takoo was himself killed by an overseer, who was another of Annie’s lovers.
Still fearful of the White Witch even after her death, the slaves burned her possessions, including her photos and buried her in the deepest hole they could dig.
I’ve always heard there were no photos of Annie but during the night tour we were shown a group portrait that included a woman our guide said could be the White Witch. (I did the day tour so long ago, I can’t remember if they showed us this particular photo of Annie – or the woman they believe could be her. It made me wonder whether it was another story designed to feed the legend.)
Annie, she explained, was known to dress in red, the same color one of the women was wearing. We were told to walk pass the portrait and watch as the eyes of the woman in the photo seem to follow us.
We saw other ‘apparitions’ – a woman dressed in red sitting casually in an armchair in one of the bedrooms, and a slave man in the dining room – but they weren’t nearly as unnerving as the canned sounds or, I’m sure, a real ghost, or duppy, would have been.
Life at Rose Hall Great House After the Palmers
After the Palmers, Rose Hall Great House passed to three different owners. One, the Hendersons, were so terrified after their maid fell from Annie’s balcony and broke her neck that they abandoned the house and relocated to Kingston.
Rose Hall was empty for years and was falling apart when John and Michelle Rollins, from Delaware, purchased it in 1965. They spent $2.5 million restoring it with silk wallpaper, chandeliers, mahogany paneling and floors, as well as European antiques.
Rose Hall estate is a mix of properties, including three championship golf courses, residential and commercial real estate, and another great house, Cinnamon Hill, which Johnny Cash owned.
Annie Palmer has been immortalized in H.G. Wells’ book, The White Witch of Rose Hall, which was published in 1928. Some say that it’s the story of this fictional Annie Palmer that has wrapped Rose Hall in intrigue.
As we walked the ink black night towards Annie’s grave, we heard the unmistakable sounds of chains. In Jamaican folklore, a particular duppy called a “rolling calf” wears a chain around its body and makes a clanging sound when it walks. I didn’t believe it was a rolling calf but I really didn’t want to find out.
Do you believe the Annie Palmer story is true?
Would you visit a place that’s haunted?