The Dr. John R. Drish House in Tuscaloosa has a bright future and a very dark past. Recently restored, it’s alive these days with festive gatherings, but legends of the dead continue to haunt this old plantation house.
David Higdon, the founder and lead researcher of the Tuscaloosa Paranormal Research Group, says the Drish House, built in 1837 by the owner’s artisan slaves, “is one of the most haunted places in Tuscaloosa.”
In his book, “Haunted Tuscaloosa,” Higdon and co-author Brett Talley write about three spirits said to remain in the house. Drish, an alcoholic, died one night “in the midst of a particularly devastating bout of delirium tremens” when he fell, or threw himself, down the stairs. Katherine, Drish’s daughter, went insane after her father got rid of her lover and married her off to a more suitably wealthy man. That husband divorced her, and she returned to Drish House, where her father kept her locked in a bedroom with only a piano for company. Finally, there’s Drish’s wife, Sarah, whose dying wish was to be honored with candles around her coffin like she had arranged for her husband when he died. Mrs. Drish didn’t get her ceremony, and she reportedly haunts the tower with phantom flames.
Drish House and its ghosts appeared in Kathryn Tucker Windham’s book “13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffery.” Windham told the Drish story, “Death Lights in the Tower,” many years ago, the house looking decidedly more haunted back then.
Higdon has been to Drish House many times, but this is his first visit since Birmingham-based preservationist Nika McCool restored the house, beginning in 2014, and turned it into a popular venue.
Drish House doesn’t look or feel haunted anymore.
Its creamy stucco-on-brick exterior, with enormous columns on the front and back, glows at night. Inside, brilliant chandeliers light artwork in the large room downstairs where people enjoy concerts, get married and celebrate birthdays. (Nall is having a show here in the fall.) Handsome, parallel staircases lead to a comfortable second floor with offices, plush sofas and a flat-screen television. The infamous tower separates a bride’s side from a groom’s area upstairs.
The tower is what makes Drish House one of the most distinctive mixes of Greek Revival and Italianate architecture in Alabama. Drish added the three-story tower and Italianate flourishes to his house to keep up with the Jemisons. In 1862, Sen. Robert Jemison, another wealthy planter, built his magnificent Italianate home (now the restored Jemison-Van de Graaff mansion) less than one-half mile away. From his tower, Drish could keep an eye on what was happening at the Jemison place.
But there’s much more here than what we can see, Higdon says.
On a recent rainy Friday night, Higdon and fellow investigators Scott McCloud, Heather Boothe and Vivian Abbott spent time with the resident spirits.
Higdon and his group have laid a quarter-mile of cable throughout the house to connect a thermal imaging camera, several full-spectrum surveillance cameras and a motion-detecting laser grid to a 16-channel DVR command center set up in the service kitchen. There are other motion sensors, a digital voice recorder, pods that detect energy fields, an infrared digital temperature scanner, several handheld electromagnetic field (EMF) meters and lots of flashlights.
Established in 2004, the goal of the Tuscaloosa Paranormal Research Group is to “help people who might be experiencing problematic or traumatic paranormal activity,” Higdon says. There is no fee for their services. “That would be unethical,” McCloud adds.
Sometimes helping people might mean debunking a serious claim, McCloud says. “Much of what we do is debunk the mysteries.” Lots of things emit electromagnetic energy, he says, holding a sensor near the house’s breaker panel as an example. “Some people are highly susceptible to this energy, and it can affect them mentally, causing them to feel bad, to feel a sense of dread or to hallucinate or experience nightmares.”
Sometimes the solution to the supernatural is as simple as relocating a cable TV box or digital alarm clock.
“You have to be an open-minded skeptic,” McCloud says. “You’ve got to be open to the possibility that something’s going on, but you have to be skeptical enough to not go into a situation (thinking), ‘this is a creepy-looking house … there’s got to be ghosts here.’ With that mentality, anything that happens is going to seem paranormal.”
The group’s methods are scientific, Higdon says, and documentation — videos, audio, photos, EMF readings — is essential. “If we all hear footsteps but we don’t have audio of those footsteps, we can’t prove anything,” he says. “It’s just a good story.”
Before heading to the dark second floor of Drish House, McCloud tells the rules:
“If you have something to say, speak up. Don’t whisper. If you whisper, we might not be able to tell that apart from something else on the recordings.
“Don’t panic, and don’t run. If you get scared, find one of us. Grab ahold of us if you want to. But don’t run. We will get you out of the house if you need to get out of the house.
“Announce yourself if you move around or make any kind of noise. When we go back and listen to the recordings, we need to know that was you walking around.”
And finally, he says, “Be careful what you wish for.”
Flashlights and K2 meters in hand, it’s nearly midnight when we walk up the steep stairs, some of us thinking about Drish’s fatal fall.
Boothe sits on the sofa where she can reach the equipment on the console table. McCloud is in a chair near McCool’s office, where another group has reported activity. For the record, McCloud announces the date, time and location. Higdon, who’s watching on the computer downstairs, communicates with a walkie-talkie to account for all our heat signatures he’s seeing.
McCloud politely and respectfully asks that if anyone else is there to please let us know. He suggests that the spirits knock on the wall or on one of the doors. “We’re not looking for you to do parlor tricks,” he says. “We’d just like to talk to you. No one here means you any harm.”
It’s incredibly quiet. “It’s the kind of quiet that’s loud,” McCloud remarks.
Boothe asks the spirits if they are happy with the work McCool has done on the place. “The house, your house,” she tells them, “is owned by people who love it as much as you did.” Communicating takes energy, she adds. “Feel free to drain any of the batteries (in the equipment) if you need to.”
A few minutes later, there is what sounds like a couple of faint footsteps. One, then another.
Boothe says that the digital recorder’s battery is dead. Then there is a sound like a quick, deep breath. Bruce says he might have picked it up with his equipment.
The researchers go downstairs for a break and talk about other places they’ve been and the strange things they’ve heard and seen: whistling and voices at the Pickens County Courthouse, door slamming and a shadow figure at the Old South Pittsburg Hospital in Tennessee.
Higdon pulls out his phone and shows us photos taken at the community library in Tallassee that reveal an adult figure holding the hand of a child. He plays audio of two loud knocks recorded in the children’s area.
Higdon and Boothe return upstairs to an area near a bathroom where people have reported seeing a figure at the window and a rush of cold air when the door is opened.
It’s in this part of the house where Higdon and others have detected the scent of flowers, which is attributed to Drish’s daughter, Katherine. “When she was allowed to go outside the house, she gardened. That’s why we think the flower scent is connected to her,” Higdon says.
Higdon’s walkie-talkie hisses white noise. It’s McCloud saying someone saw something moving in McCool’s office. Higdon walks to the room; McCloud directs him to the right back corner of the desk where there’s a collection of notes clipped to a carousel-type holder. The slips of paper are moving in the slight breeze from the air-conditioning vent. Higdon says: “Debunked.”
As the session continues, there’s so much quiet and inactivity that Higdon and the group decide to call it a night. As they rewind the cables and pack away their equipment, Boothe says this was a good expedition for the uninitiated. “You got to see what it’s like, but it wasn’t enough to really scare you.”
Experience Drish House for yourself: The Tuscaloosa Paranormal Research Group is having a series of Haunted Tuscaloosa bus tours, which will begin and end at the Drish House every Friday in October. Go to www.hauntedtuscaloosatours.com.
Find out about events at Drish House on The Historic Drish House Facebook page and on Instagram at drish_house.