Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Jan. 2010 Travel Article


by Anne Butler

Jan 2010 articleMayhem, mystery, murder---what is it about misfortune we find so intriguing? Whatever it is, Louisiana’s historic plantations, with morning mists swirling through the live oaks and breezes stirring the Spanish moss, provide the perfect setting for such scenarios. Think of River Road’s Ormond Plantation whose 1790s owner was summoned from the dinner table by a caller dressed as a Spanish official, never to be seen again, and whose subsequent owner was hung from an oak on the front lawn.  And among the six historic plantations open for daily tours in St. Francisville, there is The Myrtles, which capitalizes wonderfully on its own woeful past.

Sticklers for historical accuracy might regard as more entertainment than fact the scintillating stories that captivate and terrify tourists on popular weekend mystery tours through a house calling itself the most haunted in America--the slave Chloe wearing a green tignon to cover the ear whacked off as punishment for eavesdropping, the tiny tots poisoned by oleander baked into a birthday cake, the slain soldiers and stabbings over gambling debts, the illicit affairs  between master and slave, the disturbed Indian burial mound and the unquiet spirits captured in discolored mirrors.

But the murder at The Myrtles of William Drew Winter, ah, that’s another story altogether, and one well grounded in historical fact. William Winter had been born in Bath, Maine, in 1820, a direct descendent of pilgrim John Alden.  His father was a ship captain who drowned when William was 15, and misfortune seemed to follow William all his life.

One fine day in August of 1856, for example, he boarded the steamer Star bound for Last Island, popular with south Louisiana’s plantation families and residents of the Crescent City escaping deadly yellow fever epidemics amidst the healthful sea breezes. Just off the Louisiana coast, Isle Dernier was a fashionable Victorian resort with summer cottages and a small hotel, fine fishing and sea bathing, and broad sand beaches for promenading and carriage riding.

Jan 2010 articleAboard the Star, attorney William D. Winter approached the island just as Louisiana’s first great hurricane arrived unheralded from the opposite direction. Devastating winds and strong surf inundated the lowlying island from both gulf and bay sides, with houses collapsing and shrieking residents washed out to sea. The crippled Star, its anchor chains snapped, was very nearly swept past the island to perish in gulf waters, but as the captain struggled to dock, the vessel bilged in the sand near the highest point of the island.

One of the heroes of the disaster would be William Winter, who arrived in time to see the collapse of the island hotel where numerous guests and visitors had taken refuge. With his colleague Dr. Jones Lyle, Winter leapt from the foundering steamboat into the raging waters and rushed into the shattered hotel to save scores of men, women and children, leading them to the terrapin pens, sturdy enclosures holding turtles destined for the dining table. Then, during a brief calm in the midst of the storm, the men formed a human chain stretching toward the foundered Star and led their two dozen charges from the neck-deep waters of the terrapin pens to the safety of the boat’s hull.

Winter and Lyle were both known as great gourmets, and at one point during the frantic struggle, as they watched hundred-pound turtles swimming around the trapped survivors and being washed out to sea, Winter wryly commented on how many good dinners were being lost. But in the aftermath of the tragedy, with hundreds of lives lost, an aunt of Winter’s would write that he could not speak of the disaster without tears in his eyes.

William Drew Winter’s first wife died in childbirth. Four years before the Isle Dernier disaster, in June 1852, he married 19-year-old Sarah Mulford Stirling at The Myrtles Plantation, home of her parents, Ruffin Gray Stirling and Mary Catherine Cobb. The Winters would have six children. After the death of Sarah’s father, William served as agent and attorney for his mother-in-law’s extensive properties, including the Myrtles, described in estate partitions as “2300 acres more or less, comprising all the land between Bayou Sara on the West and the Woodville Road on the East, and between lands of Mrs. Harriet Mathews on the North, and lands of D.S. Lewis and others on the South.”

Jan 2010 articleThe plantation, originally known as Laurel Grove, had been established in the late 1790s by Judge David Bradford, Pennsylvania attorney who represented Monongahela Valley farmers opposing an excise tax levied on their corn whiskey by US authorities. As one of the ringleaders of the so-called Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, Bradford narrowly escaped with his life to Spanish territory (the St. Francisville area remained under Spanish control until 1810). After his death in 1809, Bradford’s property was occupied by his descendants until 1834 when it was sold, along with improvements and slaves, for $46,853.17 to Ruffin Gray Stirling, father-in-law of William Winter.

The prosperous days of the Cotton Kingdom were ended by the Civil War, and by 1867 William D. Winter had to declare bankruptcy. However, after a tax sale by US Marshalls, the title to The Myrtles was transferred to his wife Sarah, and the family was still in residence on the tragic day in January 1871 when William Drew Winter met his end. Records of Grace Episcopal Church, quoted by expert genealogist Ann Stirling Weller in her meticulously researched book on the Stirling family in West Feliciana, say of William D. Winter, “He was shot at his own door 26 Jan. at half past seven o’clock, M.M. Dillon rector.”

William D. Winter was said to have been teaching a Sunday school class in the front room to the right of the entrance at The Myrtles when he heard someone outside calling his name. He went out onto the broad front gallery with its wrought-iron grillwork, and there he was shot dead. His stunned family inside heard the shooting, followed by the sound of horse’s hooves clattering off into the distance. Family recollections relate that Winter dropped dead where he was shot; later reenactments sweep him, mortally wounded, back into the house, through the gentleman’s and ladies’ parlors and onto the staircase rising from the central hallway, where he expired in his beloved’s arms on exactly the 17th step. Today ghostly steps are said to echo across the wood floors, halting on the fateful 17th stair tread.

William Drew Winter was buried at Grace Church the following day. Recountings of the tragedy blame an unnamed assailant, perhaps harboring a grudge due to the troubles of the turbulent Reconstruction era, when nighttime violence was commonplace and newspaper dispatches mention angry mobs of former slaves armed with torches and guns marching on St. Francisville. But actual newspaper accounts of Winter’s demise refer to the upcoming trial of one E.S. Webber for his murder.

Jan 2010 article Today The Myrtles makes the most of Winter’s murder and other tragedies on hair-raising mystery tours Friday and Saturday evenings (as well as the very popular spooky Halloween extravaganzas). The house is also open for daily historic tours from 9 to 5. Overnight accommodations are offered in the main house and other structures, and the Carriage House restaurant on the grounds is open daily for lunch and dinner, Sundays for brunch only, and closed Tuesdays. The Myrtles is also a favored venue for weddings and other special events (see

With five other plantations—Rosedown and Audubon State Historic Sites, Butler Greenwood, The Cottage and Greenwood--open for daily tours as well, and Afton Villa Gardens open seasonally, the St. Francisville area (located on US Highway 61 between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS) is a year-round tourist destination, but visitors find it especially enjoyable in the winter when the glorious 19th-century gardens are filled with blooming camellias.  There are unique little shops in restored historic structures, and reasonably priced meals are available in a nice array of restaurants in St. Francisville.   Some of the state's most unique Bed and Breakfasts offer overnight accommodations ranging from golf clubs and lakeside resorts to historic townhouses and country plantations; a modern motel has facilities to accommodate busloads. The scenic unspoiled Tunica Hills region surrounding St. Francisville offers excellent biking, hiking, birding, horseback riding and other recreational activities.  For online coverage of tourist facilities, attractions and events in the St. Francisville area, see  or, or telephone (225) 635-3873 or 635-4224.