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The planter’s house at Kingsley Plantation

The Plantation

Slave quarters at Kingsley Plantation

Kingsley Plantation, which dates to 1797, features Florida’s oldest standing slave plantation house, 23 slave residences, and associated buildings amid a pristine wetland on Fort George Island. From 1814 to 1837, it was run by the South’s most atypical slaveholders: Zephaniah Kingsley and his wife Anna Madgigine Jai, an enslaved Wolof teen he married and later freed. Their family included three other African wives and nine mixed-race children.

The Kingsleys were deeply invested in the Spanish system of slavery, which provided certain rights for free blacks as well as to the enslaved. After Florida became a U.S. territory in 1822, Kingsley lobbied against the new government’s increasingly restrictive laws governing both slavery and the position of free blacks, including his family. When these efforts failed, most of the Kingsley family moved to Haiti starting in 1835. Kingsley sold the Fort George Island plantation to his nephew Kingsley B. Gibbs 1839. Gibbs sold it in 1868 to the Rollins family, who held it until selling it to the Fort George Club in 1923. The state of Florida purchased the property in 1955 for use as a state park. The National Park Service took over in 1991 and the plantation became part of the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve.

A Haunted Island

Kingsley Plantation between 1880 and 1899. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida

Like many other historic sites, Kingsley Plantation has accrued a considerable body of folklore. Legends that Kingsley Plantation is haunted spread just after it became a park. The plantation’s historic architecture and sublime surroundings encourage ghost stories; in particular, dark, tree-lined Palmetto Avenue has long been a popular nighttime driving route, and in the 1950s was a well known local makeout spot, all but ensuring that scary stories will be told, retold, and remembered.

Additionally, the plantation’s status as a national park gives it a core of dedicated caretakers who foster its lore and pass it on to visitors. Park ranger Emily Palmer is one of those custodians. She regularly talks to guests about the supposed ghosts, even if she thinks the tales can mostly be debunked. For her, it’s a chance to help people connect with the space and its actual history. “Our big effort here is to protect this history and what is for so many people a spiritual site, and a connection with their ancestors,” said Palmer. “It’s so important to treat that with respect.”

Old Red Eyes

Easily the most famous of the plantation ghosts is “Old Red Eyes,” said to appear as a pair of red, glowing eyes in the woods. According to researcher Alan Brown, the apparition has been spotted since 1978. One sighting frequently repeated in books on ghost lore was by a local woman named Tes Rais in 1993, and reports have come regularly ever since.

The story goes that Red Eyes was a slave who raped and murdered girls on the island. Sometimes his victims are claimed to have been the planter’s daughters, but far more commonly, they are said to have come from the enslaved population. According to this version, the other slaves discovered the crime and lynched Red Eyes from an oak tree beside the roadway. Thereafter, the villain remained to haunt the place as a malevolent spirit, stalking visitors from the trees.

No historical evidence supports the Red Eyes story. Accounts have a number of elements in common with other Southern ghost stories or haint tales associated with historic sites. Glowing eyes are fairly common attributes of ghosts, and the name “Old Red Eyes” is recorded as a folkloric nickname for the devil in South Carolina. Palmer believes there may be a more mundane explanation for the sightings. “Interestingly enough, along Palmetto Avenue we do have something hanging from the trees that would reflect bright red eyes if a brake light was shining in them,” she said. “They’re called possums. I believe that people have probably seen something of that sort… but I think it may have been a more natural explanation than what people are looking for.”

Another addition to the Red Eyes story circulating when I was young indicated that the ghost could be summoned by chanting his name three times. This variation of the “Bloody Mary” legend is clearly inspired by the 1992 film Candyman, in which a menacing ghost, in life the son of former slaves and a victim of lynching, is conjured similarly.

The depiction of Red Eyes’ crimes relies on some especially nasty old tropes. It hews very closely to the sensational and frequently implausible stories that early 20th century mobs used to rationalize lynching. Lynching was less about the victim than it was about stoking fear and shock among African Americans. Palmer notes that while lynching was not common in the plantation era, Jacksonville was no stranger to this type of violence under Jim Crow. Seven lynchings are known to have occurred in Duval County between 1909 and 1924. “It was not a phenomenon of the plantation time period, but it’s definitely a legacy of that history,” she said. Unusually, the most popular version portrays Red Eyes’ deeds as crimes against and avenged by other slaves. This detail may reflect the unusual social dynamic of the Kingsley days, a legacy the park’s staff fastidiously memorialize.

Anna Kingsley and other plantation ghosts

Anna Kingsley, is that you? Image courtesy of Joyce Elson Moore

The legends and sightings extend well beyond Old Red Eyes. A number of visitors have reported seeing an ethereal “woman in white” on the back porch of the main house, who appears particularly in photographs. Most often, this is said to be the figure of Anna Kingsley herself. Joyce Elson Moore, author of the Haunt Hunter’s Guide to Florida, snapped a photo she believes captures Anna.

This identification comes despite the fact that Kingsley did not die on the island and is not buried there. In fact, when she died in 1870, she hadn’t lived on the Kingsley plantation for over 30 years. She lived near two of her daughters in the African-American community in present-day Arlington, where she is buried in an unmarked grave in Sammis Cemetery. Additionally, Palmer says that while Anna’s ghost is usually reported in the planter’s house, she never lived in the building - she had her own quarters in the nearby kitchen house. As with Old Red Eyes, Palmer isn’t swayed by these sightings or photographs. “They’re often pointing out this shape that appears to be almost tucked in at the waist and then going out into a skirt. But when I’ve looked at it all I see is the curtains.”

Peacocks - ghostly white or otherwise - are found on Fort George Island.

According to another common tale, visitors may hear a little girl screaming from the woods, but when they run to her, all they find is a ghostly white peacock. As it happens, Fort George Island is home to albino peacocks, as well as the familiarly iridescent versions. “If you’re unfamiliar with the fact that there are albino peacocks, and if you are not familiar with the sound a peacock makes when it’s doing its mating call, you might take that for a little girl screaming,” said Palmer. “It’s a pretty unique noise.”

Palmer also says that guests have approached her with an apparently newer addition to the Kingsley ghost roster: a ghost alligator that’s said to guard the bottom of a mysterious stairwell. Others that frequently come up in ghost books and websites include a ghostly crying child in the well, who supposedly fell in and died. Other encounters have been reported by park staff over the years. Frances Duncan, a volunteer tour guide in the 1970s and 80s, told researcher Alan Brown about several such experiences, including furniture moving inexplicably, the mysterious aroma of gingerbread in the kitchen, and an encounter with the ghost of a turban-wearing African in the main house. Zepheniah himself is also said to be present. Duncan told Brown that the rangers maintained a tradition of never saying “Goodnight, Mr. Kingsley,” as “something bad” may happen. One night when she absentmindedly uttered the phrase, she learned why it had been proscribed: a wave of sickness came over her.

Palmer doesn’t put much stock in the ghost stories, but is respectful of those who see the plantation as a weighty spiritual site. “I don’t mean to disrespect people’s beliefs or experiences. We definitely have a lot of people who say they feel a spiritual connection to the site and a connection to their ancestors, and we want to give them the space to be able to do that,” she said. “But a lot of the stories that people come up with, and reasons to come up here at specific times at night - and specific months of the year like October - a lot of those can be debunked.”

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Article by Bill Delaney. Contact Bill at wdelaney@moderncities.com.