From the Tuscaloosa News:
The Drish House, one of Tuscaloosa’s most prominent “haunted” houses, is being returned to something approaching its original appearance this weekend.
Early Friday morning, a crew from Arrowood Excavating began tearing down the large red brick church building that had been added to the 174-year-old home by Southside Baptist Church in the 1950s. The church building is adjacent to the house.
James Arrowood, the owner of the Romulus-based company, said he hoped to have the job finished today.
The Drish house was built on 17th Street around 1835 by Dr. James Drish, who died after falling off a balcony in the house. His death, and that of his wife, Sarah, led to several stories that the house was haunted by their ghosts.
Over the years the house passed through many hands and at one point during the Depression was an auto parts store, captured in a famous photograph by Walker Evans.
Two years ago the Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society bought the house from the church and has been working to stabilize it, according to architect Evans Fitts, a member of the preservation society’s board of directors.
Southside Baptist had used the house for Sunday school classes and added a small addition to the east side that was demolished last year. Tearing down the sanctuary of the church is a more complicated job.
“The church is attached to the side of the Drish House and we don’t know yet what it will look like when this demolition is finished,” Fitts said. “Hopefully, there won’t be too much work to be done to the side of the house to stabilize it and make it look something like it did in its heyday.
“But the inside still needs massive renovation and the preservation society does not have the money to do much other than repair and stabilize what’s inside. Hopefully sometime in the future some one will come forward with an offer to renovate the house completely.”
The claw of a large bulldozer made its first incision in the south side of the church building Friday morning, and by noon the bulldozer was still at work, sitting on a large mound of rubble.
Arrowood was keeping a close eye on the project.
“We’ve torn down several buildings this size before, but not one that was connected to another building that needs to be saved,” he said. “My main concern is that we don’t do any damage to the house itself.”
Katherine Mauter, the executive director of the preservation society, was bundled up against the cold weather and keeping a close eye on the work.
“I’m here to document the process,” she said, holding up a small camera. “This is a big project and just the latest chapter in the Drish House history.”
Arrowood said he was well aware of the stories about the house, but said he noticed nothing out of the ordinary as the demolition work began.
“Yeah, I know all about the ghost stories,” he said. “I’ve even been in the house at night alone and you can bet that I had those stories in mind while I was in there.
“But I didn’t see anything unusual.”
TUSCALOOSA - Of all the allegedly haunted houses in Tuscaloosa — and there are more of them than you might think — the Drish House on 17th Street near downtown has been the holy grail for those looking.
“We’ve been waiting for years to get to go inside the Drish House,” David Higdon, one of the co-founders of the Tuscaloosa Paranormal Research Group, said last week, as he prepared for a night of investigation. “The house has so many stories associated with it, maybe more than any other house in town, but it has been off-limits forever.”
All that changed last year when the last remaining members of Southside Baptist Church, which for 70 years owned the three-story mansion built by Dr. John Drish around 1835, signed the deed over to the Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society. The society has been cleaning and stabilizing the deteriorating building ever since.
“We’ve finally got all the trash out of the house and even though there are still some places in the floors you can’t walk because of termites and a stairway that is too unstable to climb, we think it is safe to enter now,” said Susan Haynes, the executive director of the society, as she joined the members of the paranormal group in their three hours to look for, well, the paranormal.
“We’ve worked with this group before,” she added, “and I kind of think it is fun to investigate places like this just to see what we can find.”
The tragic beginning
While there are several versions of the story behind the ghosts in the Drish House, they all revolve around Drish himself, who was also a planter, gambler and, by all reports, an alcoholic, Haynes said.
“The story is that one night when he was trying to dry out, but had the shakes and was seeing things, he leapt up out of his bed upstairs and charged right over the banister, falling to his death,” she said. “But maybe sensing something, he had left elaborate instructions for his burial, and they included lying in state upstairs in the home surrounded by candles.”
Drish’s widow, Sarah, lived in the house for several more years, becoming increasingly unstable as she grieved for her husband.
“She wanted her funeral to be just like her husband’s and became obsessed with preserving the candles that were used at his bedside,” Haynes said. “But when she finally died, no one could find the candles — she had hid them too well — and she lay in state without them.”
That’s when the strange occurrences began, Haynes said.
“There are numerous instances of people reporting seeing the third-story tower on fire and calling the fire department,” she said. “But each time when they got there, there was no fire and no sign of fire.
“The lore is that the light people saw was from those candles that Sarah, or her spirit lit. Even in recent years, there have been reports of strange lights coming out of the house.”
There are several other stories of the supernatural elements in the Drish House, including some about Drish’s daughter, Katherine, said to be insane, and runaway slaves who hid in the house only to die of starvation.
“But Dr. Drish’s violent death and his widow’s sorrow and what happened after she died is the story most people know best,” Haynes said.
The Drish House also achieved some notoriety in the mid-1930s when Walker Evans photographed it while it was being used as an auto parts store and wrecking company headquarters.
“That’s really a famous photo that hangs in a museum in New York,” Haynes said. “It was part of Evans’ documentation of the South during the Depression.”
Night in the haunted house
As Haynes recounted the stories surrounding the Drish House, a white half moon set behind the old mansion as more than half a dozen members of the Tuscaloosa Paranormal Research Group unpacked their equipment. Unpacked were three infrared cameras that attached to a digital video recorder and a monitor that showed scenes from all three cameras at once, several digital tape recorders, highly accurate thermometers, hand-held video and digital cameras along with other sensors.
Mike Corley, who co-found the 20-member group with Higdon about three years ago, didn’t bother hiding his excitement as the equipment was being unloaded and investigators waited for their first glimpse inside the mansion.
“The story of the Drish House was told in Kathryn Tucker Windham’s very first ‘13 Alabama Ghosts’ book,” Corley said. “I know that a lot of groups all around the country have been interested in getting in this house for years, but its never been available until now.”
Once inside, Higdon and Corley set up the DVR and monitor in the small kitchen the church had built on the ground floor, while cables were run to the infrared cameras placed in the main ground floor room, looking down the stairwell where Dr. Drish plunged to his death, and vertically on the second floor looking up into the tower where the “fires” were often reported.
“Once we get everything set up, we’ll all gather in the big room and have what we call ‘lights out,’ which is when we will see if any of our equipment can detect anything or we can hear or see anything ourselves,” Higdon said.
Both he and Corley shrugged off any suggestion that the 30 members of their group are “ghostbusters.”
“We don’t mind anything people might think of us,” Corley said. “Look, I’m a skeptic myself, but I do know that in some of our investigations we have come on things we can’t explain.
“We’ve recorded some very unusual lights and sounds with our equipment, and I have even felt myself physically pushed by something on one of our investigations.”
Higdon said his group has investigated more than a dozen structures in Tuscaloosa County, including Smith Hall at the University of Alabama and the original site of Bryce Hospital on University Boulevard.
Questioning the ghosts
By the time “lights out” finally came at 9 p.m., the group gathered in the front room of the old mansion had swelled to about a dozen. Many sat on the floor, a few stood and a couple of people sat in folding chairs they brought with them.
After a few moments of silence, punctuated only by the sound of a nearby train whistle, Corley began to ask questions of the darkness, pausing for a long time between each inquiry.
“Is there anyone here who would like to contact us?
If there is someone here, could you tell us your name?
“Is there anyone here who might want to communicate by knocking on the wall or floor?”
After several more questions and seemingly no responses — at least none that could be detected by the people in the room — the group went upstairs, where the ritual was repeated, again to no obvious paranormal reaction.
But Higdon said he was not discouraged, that the data collected from the various sensors had to be analyzed before any judgment could be made.
Later in the week, he said that while the data had yet to be assessed, there did appear to be some anomalies detected both by the infrared cameras and some of the audio recorders.
“There were some lights floating around the room,” he said. “Now whether that might just have been dust, or even a bug, we can’t say yet. And there did seem to be some response to some questions that we couldn’t hear, but that was picked up by our monitors.
“But I think Monday was a good start — we usually visit a site three or four time before we’re through,” he said. “I’m just glad somebody finally got in the Drish House.
“There is just so much good lore there.”