When distinguished Canadian author, Jane Urquhart, was a child on a Jamaica vacation with her family in the late 1950s, the abandoned Rose Hall plantation house was anything but the tourist attraction it is today. The once grand mansion suffered from advanced deterioration and, believing it was haunted, scarcely a single islander would go anywhere near the eerie house on the hill overlooking the Caribbean. “In spite of its reputation,” says Urquhart, “my parents were intrigued by the history and legends of the place and wanted to visit it but getting someone to take us there was a challenge. After much searching we eventually found a taxi driver who reluctantly agreed to drive us to the bottom of the long lane leading up to the house but that’s as far as he would go.”

Like the great majority of locals back then, the cab driver was convinced the house was haunted by the infamous Annie Palmer, the once mistress of Rose Hall who is said to have unleashed a reign of terror there in the 1820s. So horrific were her alleged deeds that even in death islanders feared her no less than when she was alive.

Legend recounts a decade-long rampage during which she became known among her plantation slaves as the “white witch,” a nickname that was more of an injustice to witches than to the woman said to have callously committed a string of wanton murders.

“When we visited the house those many years ago, there was nobody else on the property but us,” says Urquhart. “You could see it had once been a splendid building but it was seriously crumbling away and the grounds around it had surrendered to weeds and other overgrown greenery.” Today, an eroding building and unkempt grounds are conditions that no longer exist.

Moreover, if Urquhart were to visit the place now she would likely find plenty of company on the property since Rose Hall currently ranks as one of the most visited tourist sites on the island. The 1960s restoration of the once grand Georgian mansion 10 km east of Montego Bay is credited to American millionaire, John Rollins of Wilmington, Delaware, who purchased the disintegrating building and, at great personal expense, returned the estate to its former opulence. Rose Hall is now operated by the Jamaica National Heritage Trust, an organization dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the island’s historic places and cultural heritage.

Thousands of visitors tour the restored Rose Hall every year, proving there’s nothing like a good ghost story to capture people’s interest. While some are attracted by the history and architectural significance of the mansion built during the island period when sugar was king, a great majority are drawn by the fascination of reported ghost sightings and grisly tales about the woman whose atrocities were, according to legend, seemingly boundless.

Docents giving daily tours of the house recount Annie Palmer’s sadistic tirades during which she is purported to have poisoned three husbands and murdered a succession of slaves she had taken as lovers. In addition, slaves that Annie deemed to have misbehaved were often mercilessly beaten, some were beheaded in the mansion courtyard, and others were chained in a basement dungeon without food or water.

Reportedly a student of witchcraft, Annie is also said to have sacrificed slave babies using their bones in voodoo rituals. To invite her wrath in any way was surely the kiss of death or torture but in the final analysis, although plantation slaves lived in morbid fear of the petite, 4 ft. 11 inch mistress, one of them eventually summoned the courage to do her in.

Annie was buried in a grave covered by a thick stone slab in a shaded plot just west of the house but there are those who believe her ghost remains ever present. Over the years, Rose Hall tour guides and other on-site workers have reported seeing what they believe was her apparition and a host of tourists have described feeling an eerie presence in the house. There are also a number of websites where former visitors have posted what they insist are unaltered photos taken during tours that show the hazy white spectre of a woman.

Ghost or no ghost, over the years the lore and legend of Annie Palmer has certainly heightened public interest in Rose Hall, however, the mansion house has numerous interesting features that have nothing to do with the supernatural. The home is a fine example of Georgian architecture originally built in the mid-1700s by wealthy English planter, George Ash.

(His was just one of about 700 grand plantation houses built during the period when the cultivation of island sugar cane was producing immense wealth). Tours of the mansion today show rich mahogany floors and panelling, crystal chandeliers, antique European furniture and silk wallpaper in a pattern first used by Marie Antoinette in the Palace of Versailles.

Today, the mansion’s former basement dungeon has been turned into a souvenir shop and a bar selling, among other drinks, a potent concoction called Witches Brew, a mixture that has been said to stimulate a sexual libido as lusty as Annie Palmer‘s. Since there is little historical research to actually support the legend that paints Annie as a cruel, sex-hungry murderess, there may be cause to question the claim attached to the Witches Brew. Whether any of the Rose Hall legends are true and whether or not the place is haunted is seemingly immaterial. The mystery alone is what keeps people flocking to the mansion on the hill.


For more information about travel in Jamaica go to www.visitjamaica.com or call 416-482-7850.

More Rose Hall information and history can be found online at www.rosehall.com/about_history.html

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