In the back of the Old Burying Ground, a wooden plank the size of a checkerboard marks a tomb small enough for a baby doll – a grave strewn with beads, pennies, stuffed monkeys and a piece of Double Bubble gum.
The plank offers no name, no birthday, no death date and no prayer. The only clue to the soul resting underneath are these words carved across the front:
Little Girl Buried in Rum Keg.
“She doesn’t walk the grave at night,” said Polly Hagle with the Beaufort Historic Association, “despite what the ghost-walk people say.”
For more than three centuries, this colonial cemetery has offered a peek at a child encased in a barrel full of alcohol – an attraction that would fit nicely in a carnival freak show if it weren’t so sad.
I drove to the little girl’s grave on the Crystal Coast for Chapter 2 of my October ghost tour, wondering how to one-up last week’s installment on the spurned lover-phantom from Goldsboro.
Even if you skip the Rum Girl, Beaufort’s cemetery ranks up there with Savannah and New Orleans for sheer creepiness. Live oak branches snake around overhead like outstretched arms, and vines hang down like tattered clothing. Someone drew the letters RIP on the ground with a finger, circling them with a heart.
Somewhere among the stones lie unmarked graves from 1711: victims of the colonists’ war with the Tuscarora tribe. But no matter your appetite for the macabre, you’ll approach the girl’s grave like a tentative guest at a distant cousin’s funeral, not entirely sure if you’re welcome.
Deep in the sandy earth, the Rum Girl may be the only spirit in North Carolina who leaves you feeling awkward. You’ll want to leave something behind, some trinket that acts as an apology for all the world’s indignities: early death, morbid curiosity, litter ... Let’s move on!
Her family’s name was Sloo, which rhymed with snow, and her father was a sea merchant sometime around the 1770s.
She longed to see England, the place of her birth, and when she was 10 or 12, she begged her father to take her on a trading voyage to London – away from the boredom of a colonial fishing village. Her mother hesitated, knowing the hazards of the sea. But she allowed the trip on one condition: Bring my daughter back to Beaufort.
Sometime on the way back, the girl died aboard the ship. Weeks from Beaufort, the grieving father chose his only option short of tossing his daughter overboard. He purchased a cask of rum from the captain and sealed his girl inside.
The Sloo house still stands on Front Street in Beaufort, and you can picture the mother watching the waters from her second-story porch, waiting for her daughter to return. I don’t need to describe the horror she must have felt when the ship returned with its grim cargo.
But if the girl’s name and age haven’t survived the centuries, her story has. The Rum Girl’s plot bears the souvenirs from 100 visitors: SpongeBob dolls, crayons, a Nerf dart, acorns, a snow globe.
At least two left farewell letters behind on sheets of notebook paper:
“I feel so bad,” Kaylee Whidoe wrote.
“I’m so sorry you died of fever,” wrote Katelynn Van Heusen.
I didn’t stay past lunchtime, so I can’t say whether the Rum Girl walks among the graves at night. But I’d haunt the daylights out of that cemetery if I were a pre-pubescent ghost robbed of a nice vacation. To me, the Rum Girl gets full license to rage against the dying of the light.
As I left, I dropped a magnolia leaf on her grave – a token from an unfair world.