Nottoway Plantation: Spirits of the White Castle on the Mississippi
53,000 sq. ft., 64 rooms, 7 stairways, 22 massive exterior columns, 12 hand-carved marble fireplaces, 15 1/2 foot ceilings, 5 galleries, and double front entry steps with a boot scraper indicating the gentlemen’s side – these details alone would be sufficient to secure Nottoway Plantation’s place among the most notable American castles. Not only is it the largest antebellum plantation house still standing, it is a fine example of the Greek Revival architecture of the period. In its present incarnation, it is a resort destination that plays host to society weddings and guests seeking that special touch of grandeur only such hotels can provide. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a member of Historic Hotels of America. It is indeed a magnificent structure.
When John Hampden Randolph and his family moved into the home in 1859, Nottoway was the crowning achievement of his career as a sugar planter and the palace from which he planned to launch his sons and daughters into society. Randolph was born in 1813 in Nottoway County, Virginia, thus the name ultimately given to his grand mansion and plantation. Randolph’s father moved the family to Mississippi in 1820 when the elder Randolph was appointed to a federal judgeship there by President James Monroe. In 1837, John married Emily Jane Liddell with whom he would have 11 children. With the wedding gift from his father-in-law of 20 slaves and $20,000, he first established himself as a cotton farmer, but early on decided that sugar would prove far more lucrative. In 1841, he scraped together all he could through borrowing and mortgages and moved his family to Iberville Parish, Louisiana. There he purchased the first parcel of land that would become Nottoway Plantation. By 1860, the planation had grown to 6,200 acres planted and cared for by 155 slaves. John Randolph had realized his ambition of becoming one of the wealthiest planters on the Mississippi.
Randolph did not favor succession, but once war was declared, he gave the Confederacy his financial and personal support. He sent three sons to war; the eldest was killed at the Battle of Vicksburg. Randolph spent the majority of the war years in Texas with 200 of his slaves where they continued to support the war effort through cotton production. Mrs. Randolph stayed in Louisiana.
Nottoway survived the Civil War because of a pre-war act of hospitality by its owners. A Union gunboat fired on the house from the Mississippi River and was preparing to blast it from its foundation until the officer in charge realized he had once been a guest in the Randolph’s home. He decided to spare the house after securing Mrs. Randolph’s promise that he would be invited again after the war ended. When Randolph returned to Nottoway after the war, he made good on his promise to take his now emancipated former slaves home to Louisiana rather than sell them to a Cuban party interested in purchasing his human “property.” Nottoway remained in the Randolph family until 1889 when Mrs. Randolph sold it after her husband’s death. From that time, it passed through several hands and experienced periods of deterioration until it was sold, restored, and repurposed in the 1980’s as the destination resort of today.
If you visit Nottoway, you will hear that the place is haunted, especially Room 14 where the last private owner of the house, Miss Odessa Owen, died. Some resort employees speak with certainty about the planation’s apparitions. Whether they actually believe in them or are simply providing entertainment for guests is open to question. Some “supernatural” events are explained by nonbelievers as the effects of an old house settling and responding to changes in the barometer. There is no reasonable explanation for other events.
The apparition in Room 14 is said to have a thing for women’s long hair. At least one woman reported the lights going out while she was showering. She next felt a cold hand on her neck moving her long hair. A different woman said that the tub jerked toward the wall while she showered. She apparently reasoned with “the ghost” whereupon the tub jolted back in place, but the claw feet fell off. Several female guests have vacated the room after unusual expirences.
The carriage house is said to be haunted by the spirit of a young girl who died there 150 years ago. There is even security camera footage showing the pale form of a girl wandering the parking lot. One wonders if she is waiting for the ghost of a former carriage driver who can be seen still on the job on nights when the spirits of Nottoway are abroad. Perhaps he is going to answer the front gate bell that rings when no one is there awaiting admittance .
One of the housekeeping staff is quite certain of what she saw. She was performing her usual duties in one of the guest rooms and had just finished cleaning the bathroom. When she entered the bedroom, she saw an elderly woman dressed in a 19th century nightgown and cap sitting on the edge of the bed. As the woman rose from the bed, she disappeared. The staff member believes that she encountered Mrs. Randolph’s spirit.
In keeping with Nottoway being the location for destination weddings, there is the story of the bride who had an unwelcome experience on the third floor. She was admiring her surroundings when a hand grabbed hers and held it firmly. Thinking that her new husband had joined her, she turned to greet him only to find that she was completely alone. She became very frightened and was adamant that someone had grabbed her hand, moved it, and squeezed it.
It has been reported that the Nottoway staff keeps a journal of all paranormal activity. If you visit, perhaps someone will show you what it contains.
https://www.historichotels.org/hotels-resorts/nottoway-plantation-and-resort/history.php (Caveat: There is a glaring error in the timeline presented on this website. It states that in 1867 President Andrew Jackson pardoned Randolph for supporting the Confederacy. It would have been President Andrew Johnson. As to the family history presented, it appears to be generally correct when compared with other sources.)
Linda Bennett Pennell is an author of historical fiction set in the American South or about Southerners traveling far from home. While she writes about the land of her birth, anything with a history, whether shabby or regal, ancient or closer to our own day, has fascinated her since early childhood. This love of the past and the desire to create stories of it probably owes much to her Southern roots.
Southern families are filled with storytellers who keep family and community histories alive. It is in their blood and part of their birthright. Linda’s family had many such yarn spinners who entertained the family on cold winter evenings around her grandmother’s fireplace and during long summer afternoons on her wraparound porch. And most important of all, most of those stories were true.