Lessons

PAWLEYS ISLAND — Almost as long as mainlanders have traveled to this narrow island for beach vacations, they've told each other stories of the Gray Man, a specter who warns of oncoming storms. 

The stories vary somewhat in each iteration. Mostly he is seen walking the beach, though sometimes on the porch of a beach home or in the window of an inn. He is, as his name suggests, gray, though it's unclear whether that's from the surf on a stormy ocean or because of a link to the Confederate Army.

His mere presence is typically the warning that a hurricane approaches, but in one telling by the author Nancy Roberts, who wrote extensively about ghosts in the Palmetto State, a voice with an urgent warning emerges from the ephemeral figure, telling a young woman to flee her family's beach house.

With each major storm of the past 130 years or so, stories of the Gray Man crop up, said Cary Mock, a climatologist at the University of South Carolina who studies historical cyclones. He said the reports got far more common after 1954's Hurricane Hazel, a major storm that struck the Myrtle Beach area — that may be because there were more alleged sightings, or it may be because the legend was common enough that reporters thought to ask.

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The historic Pelican Inn on Pawleys Island is known for not just the tourists visiting the beaches, but also the legend of the Gray Man who warns those when a storm is near. A flash illuminates staff photographer Andrew J. Whitaker during a long exposure. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

A strange vision

One family's Gray Man story is set a year after that fearsome cyclone, in 1955.

Sallie Ferrell remembers going to Pawleys every year from the time she was about 6. In 1955, she was 11. The family was gathered on the porch in the late afternoon, and she spied a figure in a long coat and hat.

But that was odd: it was August, and much too hot for that kind of clothing. And what's more, the man seemed to flicker in and out of view. 

"I was just wondering, 'what in the world was he doing, dressed like that?' " Ferrell said. "You could see him clear as a bell, and then he would just fade away."

After a few minutes, the man disappeared entirely.

The next night, Ferrell remembers her mother frying chicken for dinner when a local policeman knocked on the door and told the family they had to leave swiftly; a storm was coming. Ferrell and her mother, sister, father and brother piled into the family car and fled to a small, sturdy convenience store on U.S. Highway 17. 

The whole family had seen the strange man after Ferrell pointed him out, and when they told attendants in the store they explained the legend of the Gray Man.

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Bobby Glass, left, with his sisters Mary Glass Seiley and Sallie Ferrell after evacuating Pawleys Island in 1955. Shortly before Hurricane Connie threatened the coast, the family saw a figure on the beach they believe to be the Gray Man. Provided/Mary Glass Seiley

But was it actually Mary Glass Seiley, Ferrell's younger sister, who saw the figure first?

That's what Seiley remembers from that time, when she was roughly 8, and she didn't recall the man flashing in and out of view. Seiley also described him wearing a stovepipe hat, and said by the time the family left the island the next night, wind and rain were already lashing Pawleys.

On a few points, the sisters agree: no one in the family knew who the Gray Man was when they saw the strange figure on the beach. No one saw him again before a second storm spurred another evacuation a week later. And he evaporated, utterly, after a short walk on the beach. 

"Seeing him was strange enough, but to have him disappear in front of you was totally, totally shattering," Seiley said.

Both sisters agree the vision they saw was the Gray Man. As for each sister claiming they saw the figure first: "I guess that's a sibling thing," Seiley said.

But the meteorological history of 1955 further complicates the narratives. The storm preceded by this vision was Hurricane Connie, a cyclone that got as strong as Category 4. 

Mock said Connie never hit Pawleys at all — after bee-lining for South Carolina, it sharply jogged north and landed on the Outer Banks. But it was likely that residents of Pawleys knew the storm could arrive within a few days, and a report from The News and Courier, a predecessor to The Post and Courier, indicates some effects were felt to the north on Myrtle Beach.

Hurricane Diane arrived about a week later, and hit much closer to Pawleys. Ferrell and Seiley remember evacuating for that storm too, though they didn't see the Gray Man beforehand.

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Mark Poff looks over at his wife Kelly Poff while fishing off of Pawleys Island on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Oral tradition

It's not uncommon that these small discrepancies emerge in the Gray Man stories, said historian Lee Brockington. She has told the story of this mysterious man many times in public settings, and has resorted to a tale that's kind of a compilation, of sorts, of many different tellings. The differences are simply part of oral tradition.

Perhaps murkiest is the actual provenance of the man who became the spirit. In Brockington's telling, he's a young Confederate soldier returning after the Civil War, bound to meet the woman he's betrothed to at her family's summer home on Pawleys. The man was caught in a storm and unable to reach her, his horse sinking into pluff mud, and now his spirit warns islanders of other oncoming cyclones.

Brockington is aware of the holes in this version: the war ended in April, solidly outside of hurricane season. There was also no major hurricane that affected South Carolina that year, Mock said.

But the beats of history and the natural world are still there, Brockington said, making the tale a worthy one to tell each October.

"Part of the reason this story endures is because it includes geography, it includes meteorology … floods and wars and separation, all of that," she said.

She also stops short of assigning a real identity to the man or his future wife. Some have claimed that Plowden C.J. Weston, a rice planter and owner of a Pawleys home that's now the Pelican Inn, is the Gray Man.

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Justin McMillion looks out into the marsh towards the historic Pelican Inn while sitting on the South Causeway at the entrance of Pawleys Island on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Glenn Cox, owner of a chain of pharmacies in the area, said he even saw a glowing figure in the window of that inn in 1999, during a lull between Hurricane Floyd's squalls. It struck him as strange because there was no electricity on the island at the time. When he found himself penned in by flooding on the island's southern causeway a few minutes later, he wondered if the figure had been trying to warn him.

But it makes little sense that the mysterious man would be Weston, because his life diverges from so many of the popular stories; he was married, not betrothed, when he died, and passed away from tuberculosis. 

One component of the story does remain consistent. For those who heed the warning to leave, they come back to the island to find that their home is untouched by the tempest, Brockington said. 

Cox, Ferrell and Seiley all said their experiences were unsettling, but said nothing about the vision was threatening.

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Chris Kelley visiting from Pennsylvania tosses a cast net into the ocean along the beach of Pawleys Island on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

"He’s not a bad ghost. He’s a good ghost," Cox said. "He warns you of impending danger."

Meanwhile, Ferrell and Seiley still visit Pawleys with their family, including their great-grandchildren. The vacations are a cherished tradition — as is the family tale of the Gray Man. 

"We have scared the tar out of a lot of little kids," Ferrell said.

Source : https://www.postandcourier.com/hurricanewire/south-carolinas-ghostly-gray-man-legend-offers-lessons-in-hurricanes-and-shared-stories/article_e713aba2-30e3-11ec-b12d-2f43a21cec78.html

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