I visited Colonial Williamsburg for the first time when I was in high school and attended a summer history program at the College of William & Mary. In between field trips and writing journal entries, our advisors took us on Colonial Williamsburg’s Ghosts Amongst Us. We crowded nervously through the front door of the Wythe House, and just when we had settled in, a beautiful lady in a silk gown descended the stairs. She was gorgeous (and terrifying). And she wove a tale of love, lust, and loss.
I can’t tell you what other legends I heard that night, but over the years the lady in silk stayed with me. This past spring when I joined the cast of Ghosts Amongst Us, I just knew I had to tell her story. She was, I came to discover, one of the oldest haunted tales in the Historic Area, dating back to at least the restoration in the 1930s, if not before.
The traditional story goes a little something like this. Lady Anne Skipwith was attending a ball at the Governor’s Palace with her husband, Sir Peyton Skipwith. Partway through the evening, she came upon a scandalous scene: her husband and sister caught in a deep embrace. Filled with despair, Anne is said to have run out of the front doors of the Palace and back to the Wythe house where she was staying as a guest. In her haste, she lost one of her beautiful red dancing slippers on the Palace Green.
Bursting through the front door, she raced up the stairs—her remaining shoe clacking on every other step. For more than 80 years now, there are those who say that if you’re at the Wythe house late at night, you can still hear the eerie tones of one lady’s shoe, clicking and clacking its way up the stairs. How deliciously horrifying.
Children have dared each other to approach the door and chant “Lady Skipwith, Lady Skipwith, I’ve found your red shoe…” in hopes of calling forth her spirit. Some even go so far as to leave a single shoe on the steps (though the ladies at the Wythe house have informed me that this is extremely frustrating. If you’re going to leave one fashionable red shoe, you might as well leave two so that someone can put them to good use!).
So, where did this story come from? Was Lady Skipwith a real person? I had to know…
The lady in this legend was born Anne Miller in 1743. She the daughter of a Scottish merchant and yes, she did indeed marry Sir Peyton Skipwith in 1765. And although Lady Anne did die tragically, it was not the result of a torrid affair. Records show she died in childbirth and was survived by her husband, her four children, as well as a sister. That sister, Jane Miller, was in Scotland at the time of Anne’s death, but she returned to Virginia by 1786. Two years alter, she married her former brother-in-law, Sir Peyton (and changed her name ever so slightly to Jean). The two would have three children together.
Sir Peyton built an impressive estate called Prestwould in Mecklenburg County—the house and many of the grounds remain intact to this day. He died at home in 1805, and Lady Jean Skipwith outlived him by 21 years, living to be almost 80 years old.
Many of the Skipwith papers survive and are archived at William & Mary’s Swem Library. They provide us with details of day-to-day life at Prestwould. Included among the notes about tobacco, bacon, and horse breeding are letters concerning debts from Colonel Washington, court cases lost and won, and a letter from Sir Peyton Skipwith to Jean Miller just before their wedding in which he expresses his wish to “complete a union on which my future happiness so much and so immediately depends.”
Besides the family papers, Jean Skipwith kept an extensive library; in fact it rivaled many of her male contemporaries. She was honored for it in 2010 as a Library of Virginia “Woman in History.” Jean herself planned the gardens around Prestwould with an eye for botany and modern science.
So how did these two women, who clearly flourished in their own time, become the source for the haunting lady in silk on the stairs of the Wythe house?
I started to look for evidence that Anne, Jean, and Sir Peyton had all attended a ball at the Governor’s Palace, but I could find none. In fact, I could find no evidence of any of them ever attending a Governor’s Ball. Nor could I find any particular connection between the Skipwith family and the Wythes. The facts remained that for most of Sir Peyton’s first marriage, Jean was several thousand miles away in Scotland. With actual events ruled out as a source for the story, I turned to human nature. Aferall, what is more delectable than gossip?
Jean returned after Anne’s death and eventually took her sister’s place in Sir Peyton’s house, acting as a surrogate mother to her deceased sister’s children. Even if people didn’t engage in hearsay in 1788, it makes a delightful story now. Add in an opulent party, scarlet shoes, and an incantation to call the ghost forth, and there you have it. A legend that’s ready to survive at least eighty years!
We have our own chilling version of this tale. And if you attend Ghosts Amongst Us on different nights you might hear from Jean one evening and Anne another.
Still, the real story comes from my colleagues who tell me that they have had their own shoes (which one must remove in order to close the window blinds) moved from one side of the passage to another. Others have claimed to see a lady standing behind them in the mirror across from the stairs. At first I laughed off these allegations. But then several events happened that changed my mind.
One night I was sitting in the hallway of the house after prepping for our evening tours. Suddenly, there was a short and distinct bang from the parlor. My coworker and I looked at each other, frozen. There was no furniture left in the room to make such a loud noise. We had just finished moving all of the chairs into the hall. I tried to laugh it off but after my search, I couldn’t discern the source.
Over the next two weeks I had two separate families come to find me after my performances. Each had heard footsteps upstairs and was convinced someone must have been on the second floor. I swore to them that we had been the only people in the building at the time.
Finally, the last evening that I performed as Lady Skipwith before a short hiatus, I was joking that perhaps I would finally see her reflection in the mirror as others have claimed. Halfway through the evening, I was standing on the stairs when I felt my spine begin to tingle. I couldn’t see her, but I could definitely feel someone standing just behind me. I don’t believe I have ever moved down a set of stairs so quickly in my life!
Who knows where stories like that of Lady Skipwith begin, but there are two things to keep in mind when encountering such legends. Sometimes, the real people are so much more interesting than the stories we make up about them. Ladies Anne and Jean Skipwith are proof of that. And every story comes from a kernel of truth, whether it’s a long forgotten scandal on an unexpected noise in the parlor…
GUEST BLOGGER: EMILY DOHERTY
Emily works for the Historic Sites department within the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Previously she spent a summer working in the brickyard, so she can assure you that yes-it does get hot in those clothes. She is ever thankful for her father who decided that instead of going to amusement parks, school vacations would be spent visiting historic sites around New England. Emily is proud to have (almost!) realized her childhood ambition to grow up to be Felicity Merriman, and she gets great joy in sharing her love for history with others.