Historic Rose Hall, Jamaica, is a haunting relic of the 1800s, when sugar was king and Jamaica was a jewel in the British crown. Visually impressive, this Georgian mansion is the most famous great house on the island. Over the centuries, gossip, legend, and unsubstantiated tales have been woven into the history of Rose Hall until separating fact from fiction has become difficult. But in truth, many people prefer the fiction.
In recent months, I’ve read several posts regarding paranormal investigations of Rose Hall. The ghostly presence most commonly sought by ghost hunters is that of Annie Palmer, known as the White Witch of Rose Hall. I’d like to add my two cents’ worth to the topic.
Rose Hall is haunted … but not by Annie. It’s haunted by a book and by its own grim history.
The legend of the White Witch is a lurid tale filled with debauchery, torture, and murder. Its villain, Annie Palmer, was a sadistic monster. Petite, deceptively beautiful, and seductive, she reputedly murdered not only three husbands, but several lovers and countless male slaves. Raised by a Haitian voodoo priestess, Annie used her dark powers to terrorize and control the slaves on her estates of Rose Hall and Palmyra. She enjoyed witnessing their punishment by beatings and other tortures. According to one legend, she was murdered in her bed one night in 1831 by Takoo, a freed slave and respected voodoo priest who blamed Annie for his granddaughter's death. There are other versions of the story, but they all end with Annie’s demise.
This dreadful portrayal of Annie Palmer can be found in H. G. de Lisser’s novel The White Witch of Rose Hall. It is a vision that was conjured in 1927 and haunts the great house to this day.
The truth is a different story and certainly less horrifying.
In 1750, an English planter by the name of George Ash began work on Rose Hall, named so after his wife. Ash died before he could complete the house, and Rose remarried—three times more, in fact. Her last husband, the Honorable John Palmer, completed the splendid house between 1770 and 1780.
By 1792, misfortune or mismanagement had landed both Rose Hall and the second estate, Palmyra, in the hand of creditors. Then in 1818, John Rose Palmer, great nephew of the deceased Hon. John Palmer, came to Rose Hall. His high hopes were to regain ownership of both plantations and to enjoy the profits. He repaired both great houses, and in 1820 married Annie Mary Patterson at Mt. Pleasant, St. James, Jamaica.
Sadly, in 1827, Palmer died (of natural causes) a respected, well-liked citizen but without achieving his goals. In fact, he died in debt, leaving his widow Annie to survive as best she could, with no real claim to either estate. She sold out whatever rights she held and moved elsewhere. She never remarried. Annie Mary Palmer died in 1846, long after she was supposedly murdered in her bed at Rose Hall. So it is unlikely that it is she who haunts the place.
Still, the very nature of Rose Hall—the reason it was built—does haunt it, and should.
When John and Annie Palmer managed Rose Hall and Palmyra, the West Indies sugar trade was in full swing, and Jamaica was the world’s top producer. Sugar, rum, and molasses were being shipped from the island by the tons. Jamaica was awash in plantations—over 680—and its population of slaves was on the rise. Most of Jamaica’s forced labor came from West Africa. By 1800, there were about 300,000 slaves working on the sugar estates, and their numbers continued to grow. Of course, Rose Hall and Palmyra both employed their share of free labor.
The slave rebellion of 1831 was the beginning of the end of slavery in Jamaica. St. James parish was where the first outbreak of this rebellion took place, however, the rioting slaves did not set fire to Rose Hall. Not that it mattered. The plantocracy of Jamaica was doomed and Rose Hall along with it. By 1833, The Abolition of Slavery Act was passed by British Parliament, and the era of prosperity built upon free labor was over.
Today Rose Hall has been restored to its former splendor and is presented to the public as a museum, But the great house cannot escape its grim, cruel past. It needs no author’s inventions of crime, debauchery, and unnatural death to chill us. The truth alone is chilling enough.
So, if you’re looking for the ghosts that haunt Rose Hall, look no further than H. G. de Lisser’s book and the history of slave life on a Jamaican sugar plantation. Let innocent Annie Mary Palmer rest in peace.
In my next post, I'd like share with you the story of my own visit to Rose Hall when it was still in ruins and haunted by local lore.