Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts, was unhappily married and awaiting a divorce decree when her estranged husband died in 1905. It must have galled her somewhat to compare her marriage with that of her parents, William Washington Gordon II and Eleanor Kinzie Gordon–a half-century love affair that began with a crushed hat and ended with a classic ghost story.
William Gordon II–called Willie by his beloved wife–first met Nellie, a classmate of his sister Eliza, in 1853, when she slid down a staircase banister, landed on him, and crushed his new hat. Apparently, it was love at first crush.
Nellie was of Connecticut Yankee stock and an abolitionist by inclination; Willie was the son of slave-owning Savannah, Georgia planters. Still, they were wed in 1858. They settled in Willie’s family home, now known as the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace, in Savannah.
By the time the Civil War began, they had three children. The only time they were ever separated was during the war, while Willie was away fighting for the Confederacy.
Willie and Nellie had three more children after the war, and Willie worked as president of the Savannah Cotton Exchange. During the Spanish-American War in 1898, he returned to service, rising to the rank of brigadier general. He was stationed in Miami, and Nellie, with their children now grown, joined him there, becoming famous for her work in veterans’ relief agencies. Legend has it that once, learning that a group of Indiana volunteers were being sent home by train, ill and without medical supervision, Nellie calmly boarded the train and went with them, dosing each sick man with milk punch and brandy, all the way to Indiana, then returned to Florida.
Willie Gordon died in 1912, and Nellie was inconsolable. According to Juliette, Nellie had never made any secret of the fact that she considered herself a wife first and a mother second:
. . .she never pretended for a moment that he was not her first and last love, and we as nothing by comparison. . .Maternal love is the inheritance of the ages, but love such as Mamma gave him was a personal tribute. (from a letter to her brother Arthur, c. 1912)
Nellie herself was restlessly eager to join her beloved Willie in the afterlife, as she wrote to a cousin:
. . .here I remain, very much against my will. . .
Nellie was eighty-one when she wrote that impatient note. In February of the following year, her health began to fail rapidly following a series of heart attacks. For awhile she lay comatose, rallying enough before the end to confide to a daughter-in-law, . . .I don’t want any tears. . .I shall be so happy to be with my Willie again, everybody should celebrate.
On February 22, 1917, Nellie’s attending physician told the five surviving Gordon children that the end was near; their mother would not last out the day.
Margaret, the wife of Nellie’s son Arthur, said her goodbyes to Nellie and retired to an adjoining room, which had been General Gordon’s bedroom in his last years. She was sitting there waiting for Arthur to come and tell her that Nellie was gone when, to her surprise, she saw the late William Gordon II walk out of his wife’s bedroom. He was, Margaret reported, wearing his favorite gray suit, and on his face was an expression of “grave gladness”.
He passed through his old room, passing the startled Margaret, out into the hall. She last saw him descending the front stairs.
Shortly thereafter Arthur came to tell her that his mother had just passed. Margaret excitedly told him that she had seen General Gordon just about that time; Arthur chaffed her gently about having dropped off to sleep and dreamed an especially vivid dream.
His skeptical attitude was sorely tested when they walked downstairs to meet the Gordons’ butler, a former slave who had been with the family for as long as anyone could remember. The old man asked, Is Ole Miss gone?
Assured that she was, he told Arthur through tears that he had seen General Gordon walking down the front stairs and out the front door, as he had in the old days when his carriage was waiting to take him to the Exchange. He had looked, the butler said, very well and happy.
I thought you’d lak to know the General come fetch her hisself, suh, he said in conclusion.
Curiously, Juliette’s niece would write, years later, that Nellie’s children reported, when she died, the years fell away from her. She sat up and held out her arms, looking, in that moment, as radiant as a bride going to meet her groom.
Willie Gordon’s spirit has never appeared again in the family home, but docents report that Nellie’s is very much in evidence. She has been seen in the halls, out in the garden, and sitting at the kitchen table in a dressing gown. She’s even been known to play her piano–although the instrument is missing most of its keys.
Margaret Wayt DeBolt, Savannah Spectres and Other Strange Tales (1984) All direct quotations come from DeBolt’s account.
Alan Brown, Haunted Places in the American South (2002)
Daniel Diehl and Mark P. Donnelly, Haunted Houses: Guide to Spooky Creepy and Strange Places across the USA (2010).
The love story of Willie and Nellie Gordon was also featured on the Savannah episode of Haunted History, which originally aired in May 2000. I was reminded of this story when the episode reaired on Biography Channel the other day. 🙂