ROCK HILL — A black-and-white portrait hanging in Winthrop University’s administrative building is haunting enough for one local ghost hunting enthusiast to call the picture of Ben Tillman one of the creepiest things he’s ever seen.
Maybe not creepier, though, than the time in 1998 that he says he saw a ghost of a convict who built Winthrop’s Tillman Hall more than a century ago.
Tally Johnson was working as a history graduate assistant at the university when he spotted a shirtless man, carrying 2-by-4 wooden posts on his shoulder, walking through the halls of Tillman.
At first, Johnson said, he assumed the man was an actual worker, not a ghost.
Just as he was about to yell out to the man to put a shirt on, Johnson said, the figure disappeared.
“He turned left and walked through a brick wall.”
Winthrop students have passed around stories for decades that at least one ghost haunts Tillman Hall.
Some say it’s Tillman himself – a former S.C. governor and U.S. senator who helped establish Winthrop and Clemson University.
Others say the ghosts of prisoners who built Tillman Hall in 1894 are responsible for strange sounds, shadowy figures and other unexplained activity on campus. The stocks used to restrain prison laborers if they misbehaved at Winthrop are still in the basement of Tillman Hall.
Debbie Garrick, Winthrop’s associate vice president for development and alumni relations, said if a ghost or spirit lingers around Tillman, it’s probably David Bancroft Johnson, the university’s first president.
The former president and his wife are buried on campus under Winthrop’s first building, The Little Chapel, built in Columbia and later moved to Rock Hill, brick by brick.
The university doesn’t mind the folklore and legends about ghosts, Garrick said.
In the past, Winthrop offered ghost tours to students to discourage people from conducting unauthorized paranormal investigations in parts of campus that are off-limits and locked, such as the fourth floor of Tillman Hall.
“We want to make history fun,” she said. “They’re a great way to frame some of our history.”
Johnson, a history buff and special services manager for Chester County libraries, said history is the basis for most ghost stories.
He’s written three books on haunting folklore in South Carolina. Johnson visits sites where other people say they’ve encountered paranormal activity and he tries to debunk or substantiate the claims.
“Ghost stories are like the National Enquirer version of history,” he said.
Legends about ghosts change with each generation, Johnson said, but if a story is attached to one location for a long time, it’s usually more than a myth.
He’s researched most of the colleges in the state and says Winthrop or Converse College in Spartanburg could probably be considered the most haunted schools in the state.
He has more than 800 books about ghosts in his house and shares his stories and experiences in classrooms when schools ask him to speak.
Encountering ghosts, he said, is usually a one-sided consciousness.
“(Ghosts are) doing their thing and we’re just watching,” he said.
One night while ghost hunting in Chester’s old Powell Theater, though, Johnson said he met one ghost that knew he was there and was not happy to see him.
He and some friends were investigating claims of paranormal activity in the theater’s balcony and the old projection room. Johnson said he was walking down a set of stairs from the balcony to check that a door was closed when he met a force he couldn’t see but definitely felt.
Something or someone put him in a chokehold, he said, for about five to 10 seconds.
A friend nearby raced down the stairs after hearing Johnson’s struggle, he said, and rescued him from the chokehold. That friend had experienced the same thing on the steps’ landing before, Johnson said, and had actually set him up to see if the supposed ghost would attack him, too.
He said the ghost is probably a black woman who was attacked by a white man during a time of segregation at the theater. According to a Chester legend, Johnson said, the woman was assaulted on the stairs, hit her head against a cement wall and died.
Now, he said, the ghost is reportedly hostile toward any white man in the theater.
With more than 20 years under his belt as a ghost hunter and folklore researcher, Johnson said, the encounter at the old Powell Theater is the only threatening ghost situation he’s been in.
Places such as Winthrop, the old Powell theater and other places around South Carolina, he said, have multiple generations of oral tradition chronicling hauntings.
Ghost stories are also believable, he said, when someone sees a family member or friend who recently passed away. During periods of grief especially, he said, sometimes people find it comforting to see the ghost of someone they knew.
The night before his wedding 15 years ago, Johnson said he saw the ghost of his great-grandfather in his apartment in Chester.
Lying in bed with a book on his stomach and an ashtray on his chest, Johnson saw the figure standing in front of his refrigerator.
“He just sort of tipped his baseball hat and started walking towards the door,” he said.
Johnson said he leaped out of bed and checked all of his doors, which were closed and locked.
His grandfather passed away when Johnson was 18 years old – for him to appear the night before his wedding, he said, was a welcomed encounter.
“I’m named for him,” he said. “We were practically inseparable until he passed.”