The White Witch of Rose Hall: The Truth Behind This Jamaican Ghost Story
Rose Hall is an eighteenth-century plantation manor house, and the home of Jamaica's most famous ghost—the White Witch of Rose Hall. Of the 700 great houses that once served as the homes of Jamaica's wealthy plantation owners, only fifteen remain today, the others having been burned to the ground by slaves during the Great Jamaican Slave revolt of 1831-32. Of these remaining manor houses, Rose Hall is the most well known—and the most infamous.
The story of Rose Hall begins in the year 1746, when an Englishman by the name of Henry Fanning, in preparation for his upcoming marriage to Rosa Kelly, the daughter of Irish immigrants living in Jamaica, purchased a 290-acre plot of land to cultivate and build a home on. Henry and Rosa were married in 1747, but unfortunately, Henry died just a few short months after the wedding.
Three years later, in 1750, Rosa married George Ash, a wealthy land owner in St. James Parish. Ash immediately set about building a beautiful mansion house for Rosa. Many believe that he named Rose Hall in her honor, but it appears more likely that it was actually named for the Rose family, to which George was closely associated. Sadly, George died in 1752, shortly after construction of the home was completed.
A year later, Rosa married Norwood Witter, a plantation owner and widower from Westmoreland. The marriage was, by all accounts, an unhappy one. Witter apparently spent all of his wife's money and left her with considerable debt. The unfortunate union ended with Witter's death in 1767.
In 1768, Rosa married John Palmer, the owner of the neighboring Palmyra estate and the Custos of St. James Parish. Palmer was also a widower who had two sons living in England. John and Rosa had a happy marriage that lasted until Rosa's death in 1790. John died seven years later, in 1797.
Because John and Rosa had no children together, the Rose Hall and Palmyra estates were left in trust to John's sons in England. The sons never went to Jamaica to claim the estate, and neither had any children to pass the estate on to, so, upon their deaths, the ownership of the estates passed to Palmer's grandnephew, John Rose Palmer.
In 1818, John Rose Palmer moved to Jamaica and took charge of Rose Hall. Soon afterward, he married Annie Patterson, making her Annie Palmer, and it is she who became known as the White Witch of Rose Hall.
The Legend of the White Witch of Rose Hall
There are, as with most legends, many variations to the story of the White Witch of Rose Hall, but there are common threads that run through all versions. It is these common threads that will be used to tell the story here.
As the legend goes, Annie Palmer was born Annie Patterson, the daughter of an English mother and an Irish father. When Annie was just ten years old, the family moved to Haiti. There, Annie learned Voodoo from her Haitian nanny. When her parents later died of yellow fever, Annie was left to be raised by the nanny, under who's continued tutelage she became an expert in Voodoo. At the age of eighteen, following the death of her nanny, Annie moved to Jamaica in search of a rich husband. It is here that she met and married John Palmer, who was by this time the owner of the Rose Hall estate.
Within a few months of the wedding, Annie began to tire of her husband. She started taking slaves as lovers. When John caught her at this, he beat her with a riding crop. The next day, John was dead. It was believed that Annie had killed him by poisoning his coffee.
With John dead, Rose Hall went to Annie, who now had the estate to herself. Thus began her reign of terror. She continued to take slaves as lovers, murdering them when she became tired of them. She would regularly torture her slaves and even kill those who displeased her. She set traps all around the property so that the slaves could not escape. Slaves that worked in the house and had access to the kitchen were required to whistle whenever they were around food so that she would know they were not helping themselves to any of it; they could not whistle with their mouths full. If any were caught not whistling, she would cut their heads off as punishment for the supposed theft of food. Due to her extreme cruelty, and regular practice of Voodoo, the slaves took to calling her the White Witch of Rose Hall.
Annie married two more times, murdering both husbands for their money. It is said that she killed her second husband by stabbing him in the chest while he was sleeping. She then poured boiling oil in his ears to make sure he was dead. She killed her third husband by strangulation, with the help of her slave lover, Takoo.
Annie's downfall began when she fell for an Englishman by the name of Robert Rutherford. Rutherford had no interest in her as he was in love with Takoo's granddaughter. To get the granddaughter out of the way, Annie cast a Voodoo spell on her. Known as an "old hige," the spell was said to bring about a visit from a ghost that would cause the person whom it visited to slowly wither and die. Takoo became so angered at the death of his granddaughter that he attacked Annie and strangled her to death.
The slaves took her body and buried it in a deep hole on the estate. They then burned all her possessions, for fear they might be tainted by her spirit. Then a Voodoo ritual was carried out to insure that her spirit could not escape its deep grave. The ritual was, however, performed incorrectly, freeing Annie's ghost to haunt Rose Hall.
It is believed that Rose Hall escaped the fate of most of the other great houses during the slave rebellion because the slaves believed that burning the house down would release Annie's spirit from the property, freeing it to go wherever it choose. It is also said that subsequent owners of the estate met with early (and often gruesome) ends, and that this is why the great house has stood empty for more than 130 years.
This legend makes for a great ghost story and has proven a boon to Jamaican tourism, especially at Rose Hall, but a ghost story is all it is. It could not be further from the true story of Annie Palmer.
The True Story of Annie Palmer
The true story of Annie Palmer is certainly much less dramatic than the legend. Annie Palmer was born Annie Mary Paterson, a Jamaican of Scots decent. She was not brought up in Haiti, nor did she have a Haitian Nanny, and she most certainly had no training in Voodoo.
In 1820 she did marry John Rose Palmer, the great nephew of the original John Palmer. John Rose Palmer was Annie's first, and only, husband. There is little known about their life together but it seems to have been a relatively normal, and peaceful, existence.
Their time at Rose Hall was a short one, and neither of them died there. The huge debts attached to the Rose Hall and Palmyra estates were more than John Rose Palmer could absorb, or the estates recover from. Both properties eventually passed into the hands of the receivers. The Rose Hall great house stood abandon for more than 130 years, falling into a terrible state of disrepair, before a massive restoration returned it to its former glory.
Annie Palmer did not kill her husband, or anybody else. John died in 1827 of natural causes. There is also no record of her ever having tortured or mistreated a slave. In fact, the estate had been cared for by just one or two slaves for years, and once it was turned over to the receivers John and Annie kept no slaves at all. When John died what little interest Annie still had in the estate she sold for £200. When Annie herself died in 1846, fifteen years after she was supposedly murdered by her slave lover, she left what little she had to her God-daughter Giolia Mary Spence.
So how did such an innocent woman, living such a quiet and uneventful life, become the subject of such a horrendous story? How did Annie Palmer become the White Witch of Rose Hall?
The White Witch of Rose Hall: The Making of a Legend
The seeds of the legend were sewn in 1868 when a Falmouth newspaper editor published a booklet containing many of the elements of the current tale. The difference was that this story had Rosa Palmer as the White Witch, and the murders and other terrible deeds attributed to her. The fact that she had actually had four husbands helped to give the story some "credibility" and, as happens with legends, others added their own parts to the story. In 1911 a book on the history of St. James was published which retold the story but with Annie as the central figure.
Then, in 1929, Annie Palmer's fate was forever sealed, as fact and fiction became inextricably intertwined in the Herbert G. de Lisser novel The White Witch of Rose Hall. It seemed to matter not to people that this was a work of fiction. Whatever elements had been left out of the legend by the other two erroneous publications had now been supplied, and people were happy to believe it.
Is Rose Hall Really Haunted?
Whether or not Rose Hall is truly haunted is hard to say for certain, as much depends on individual beliefs. Many people claim to have seen a shadowy figure, dressed in a green velvet riding habit, riding a black horse across the estate grounds. Others say they have seen the figure of a woman dressed all in white on the stairs outside of the great house, and to have caught glimpses of the same figure moving about inside the building. There have also been reports of screams and the sound of running footsteps heard coming from various rooms throughout the house, especially the cellar area, which now serves as the gift shop.
If the place is actually haunted it can be said for certain that it has nothing to do with a white witch, murdered husbands, tortured slaves, or Voodoo rituals. Though it could very well be Annie Palmer, come back from the grave to try to clear her tarnished name.
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Lee (2009) - The Legend of the White Witch of Rose Hall - jamaicantravelandculture.com/destinations/st-james/rose-hall/white-witch.html
Waddell J. (2013) - The Most Haunted Places I'd Love to Visit - jesslb6.blogspot.ca/2013/08/
Black D. (2016) - Who is the White Witch of Rose Hall? - theculturetrip.com/caribbean/jamaica/articles/who-is-the-white-witch-of-rose-hall/
Stefko J. (2013) - White Witch of Rose Hall: Annie Palmer - decodedpast.com/white-witch-rose-hall-annie-palmer/3496
© 2017 Stephen Barnes