This is the story of Alice Riley

Almost 300 years later, Alice Riley remains a phantom fixture in Savannah’s beautiful Wright Square. Her ghost is said to roam the Square, approaching women; sometimes, she speaks to them, begging for help.

The legend of Alice Riley begins on a ship bound for the New World. Just a teenager, Alice boarded the big boat to sail from her home country of Ireland to the shores of Georgia in 1733. The voyage was not easy. 

When the boat finally made it to the home of The Walking Dead and The Originals, less than half of the 38 Irish indentured servants survived the turbulent voyage. Two of the survivors were the young Alice Riley and her beau, Richard White. Soon they would discover that the grass is not greener across the pond from the Emerald Isle. 

Savannah Steamship

A Wise Man

William Wise was a cattle farmer who lacked morals; he was considered untrustworthy in business dealings and unscrupulous in his private life. Home in England, he petitioned the Georgia Trustees to place him on the charity list for a free ride to the new hot spot in the Colonies. But when it was discovered that the young woman he referred to as his daughter was actually a sex worker, his requested reservation on the boat was declined. But that didn’t stop William; he found a way to Savannah. 

Word traveled fast that the dastardly Wise had arrived, and James Oglethorpe, the founder of Georgia, sent him as far away from the citizens as possible. William was given some land on an island off the coast of Savannah to raise cattle. However, his days as a Savannah cattle rancher wouldn’t last long. 

On March 1, 1734, a gruesome discovery was made on Hutchinson Island. The body of William Wise had been brutally murdered in his home, and many of his personal belongings were missing. This was the first murder reported in the new colony.

Run Alice, Run

When Alice and Richard arrived in Savannah, their indentured servitude began immediately. The couple was assigned to work for William Wise in his home and on his cattle ranch. For Alice, this meant working hands-on with Wise – his hands and hers. 

General James Oglethorpe wrote to Thomas Christie, the town recorder, that Wise’s health was deteriorating, and he was confined to his bed. Lucky Alice and Richard became William’s caregivers.  Like any healthy relationship, the couple worked together when tackling the task of Wise’s hygiene. Richard combed Wise’s long hair, and Alice bathed him. Wise took this as an opportunity to make lewd comments and aggressive lascivious behavior toward Alice. It was too much for the young couple to bear. 

Historical documents of the time speculated that Alice acted under “the direction and influence of White” when she set a pail of water down by Wise’s bed while Richard pretended to “assist and comb his hair.” Richard then grabbed the neckerchief around William’s neck and “twisted ‘till he was almost suffocated.” As Richard tightened the neckerchief, Alice plunged his face into the pail of water. Once they were certain he was dead, they grabbed a few knick-knacks and made a run for it.

Alice and Richard hid on the Island of Hope (appropriate), eventually found, captured, and sentenced to death for the murder of William Wise. Many believe the anti-Irish climate of the time didn’t help their plight of innocent self-defense.

A Hanging Savannah's Wright Square

One month after the sentencing of the young couple, Richard broke out of jail. Two brothers captured him; records state that Richard begged for his life. Richard was immediately marched to the gallows; he continued to declare his innocence as the executioner placed the noose around his neck.   

Alice’s story is no less dramatic. When authorities captured Alice, they discovered she was with child. They held her in jail until she gave birth to her baby boy. During her time incarcerated, she denied her guilt. Records state, “the most that she to answer for was her being so wicked to confess a thing she was not guilty of,” as they compared her to White. 

Shortly after Alice gave birth to her firstborn, she was led to the gallows in Wright Square. Alice Riley was the first woman hanged for the first murder in Georgia. Her baby felt the loss deeply; weeks later, her boy passed away. 

A Ghost in Mourning

Savannah at NightThere are loads of ghost tour companies in Savannah. Because of its sadness and superstition, Wright Square’s Legend of Alice Riley is high on all ghost tour guides’ lists of favorite stories to tell. And rightly so, Wright Square is just as mysterious as the short life of Alice Riley. If you roam around Savannah, you will notice the charming southern city appears to be guarded by gigantic Live Oak trees dripping with Spanish Moss. Except in Wright Square. 

Some say Alice cursed the Square at the gallows, which is why it is the only Square in Savannah without the garland of moss hanging from the Live Oaks. But the most intriguing lore is the claim that Spanish Moss cannot grow where innocent blood has been spilled. Was Alice innocent? Did Richard commit the murder on his own, protecting the dignity and virtue of his love? I’ve always thought that Alice took the Spanish Moss with her. 

Women have claimed to see a ghostly apparition of a lady in white coming toward them in Wright Square. Her longing haunts her pale face. “Where is my baby?” Listen for the grief in her ethereal whisper. We can only hope that one day Alice will find her baby boy. Maybe then the Spanish Moss will return to Wright Square.