|The Empty Chair
By Steven Whitfield
My name is Ben Anderson. I am a writer who loves a good ghost story. I don’t simply make up ghost stories; I seek
them out. I investigate places alleged to be haunted; I then write stories about those places. I never expected to
actually see a ghost in any of my investigations, even though that is exactly what I always hoped for. I desperately
want to believe there is something after this life. I have heard stories about ghosts in old Abbeville, South Carolina.
The stories were interesting, but nowhere near complete, so I decided to pay a visit to two supposedly haunted
places in Abbeville to see for myself. The old Abbeville Opera house and the Belmont Inn are two places in particular
that have reported paranormal activity. They are practically right next to each other, and only a two-hour drive from
Greenville. How convenient is that? Fortunately for me the Belmont Inn is a very nice, as well as, historic hotel. It is
the place where many theater patrons stay and have stayed for nearly a century.
I arrived at the Belmont in at around six in the evening on a hot stormy Friday night in July, 2008 and checked into a
room. The room was completely furnished with antiques. I don’t know much about the complicated world of antiques,
but I guessed the furniture dated back about a hundred years. There was a very comfortable, large, somewhat
overstuffed chair in one corner, a settee, a large bed, a bookcase and an armoire. I saw an open bottle of what
appeared to be fine cognac with a couple of appropriate glasses for the drink beside it on a small table.
“Hmm,” I said out loud noticing the bottle was open and half empty.
I poured a couple of fingers of cognac into the glass and took a sip. It was then I heard the sound of a man clearing
his throat. I turned around and nearly dropped the glass. I was startled to the point of speechlessness. There in the
overstuffed chair sat a black man looking at me. After what seemed like five minutes, but was probably less than
one, the man spoke.
“If you had asked I would have offered you a drink,” He said smiling.
Between the half empty bottle and this mans presence, I wondered if I had entered the wrong room, after all the
door was unlocked and I had not needed to use the key I was given.
“Relax sir,” said the gentleman. “You came looking for a ghost story didn’t you?”
“I did indeed, but how did you know?” I asked.
“The hotel staff has been talking about your pending arrival and the ghost story you plan to write about this place.
Since you are looking for a ghost story I have one I would like very much to tell if you will allow me.”
“Fine,” I said. “I love a good ghost story”.
“Well then, you have come to the right place; in fact, I have a real ghost story about this place and I would love
nothing more than to share it with you.”
I turned on the mini tape recorder and said, “Great I hope you don’t mind if my little friend here captures your story
“Not at all” replied the gentleman.
“The old Abbeville Opera House has stood on the square of the quaint little town of its namesake for nearly one
hundred years now. It has seen the days of Vaudeville, minstrel shows and even burlesque. It has seen many of the
finest Broadway plays and featured some of the best musicals to ever be performed on a stage. The grand old
theater has seen less happy things too. It has seen times of racial prejudice, senseless hatred, jealously and rage.
And yes, the Opera house has even seen murder. I should know. I was murdered in the shadow of this place I so
love many years ago.”
“So you are telling me I am talking to a ghost right?” I asked.
“You catch on fast Mr. Anderson,” replied the gentleman.
“Please allow me to properly introduce myself. I am Abraham Jones, a proud and self-educated man of color. I am
one hundred twenty-five years old. I look twenty-five because that is how old I was when I died almost a hundred
years ago. I love reading, especially in this overstuffed chair. I love fine art and of course the theater. Other than
perhaps the ladies, I love nothing more than the theater. I am over six feet tall and considered quite handsome. I
can say this because I noticed the way the ladies looked at me when I was alive, though they tried not to be obvious
when they did. Since few of your readers who are still in their skin, so to speak, will ever get a chance to see me,
just tell them to picture Denzel Washington and make him better looking and they will be on the right track. Forgive
me please for that indulgence, but when you are dead, you have to get your pleasures however you can.”
“Please continue Mr. Jones?” I asked amused at his good humor.
“Call me Abraham please.”
“Of course,” I replied. Please call me Ben.”
Abraham stood and then poured me another glass of cognac, as he continued.
“In the spring, May to be exact, of the year 1908 one lady in particular noticed me. She was performing with a
vaudeville troupe from New York. You see in those days when the Abbeville Opera House was new, the grand
theater featured shows by performers working for production companies. These performers traveled all across the
country from their home base in New York City. Since Abbeville was an overnight stop, the cities leaders were fiscally
wise enough to build the Opera House and by doing so make Abbeville a more appealing place for tourists. They
succeeded. You see South Carolina was a state as dry as a martini and had the alcoholics to prove it. Abbeville was
very progressive, at least where revenue was concerned and had the only legal whiskey business west of the state
capital. It was the profits from the business of selling whiskey from a place called, “The Dispensary”, that built the
opera house, but I digress.” He paused a moment then said, “Now where was I? Ah yes, the lady who noticed me
happened to look up into the second floor balcony where I was sitting in my favorite chair. When she looked up, it
became clear to me that she noticed the intensity with which I was looking at her. She was tall, blonde and very
beautiful. Her voice was magnificent; her body voluptuous and her green eyes were haunting. She was enchanting.
“After the show as she and the rest of her company were making the short walk over to the Eureka hotel—now
called the Belmont Inn where I worked as a janitor and guest attendant—I had the pleasure of offering to carry her
bag. She accepted. When I showed the lady to her room, she slipped me a note. The note simply read, “Katie
Hawkins” and it had her room number. I slipped the note in my pocket. If anyone saw me looking at it and inquired, I
could always say it was simply her autograph. Of course I knew who she was from the program I was given at the
performance. Programs were sold to patrons; however as an employee of the hotel I was given one. I did not make
a great deal of money, but there were some fringe benefits to the job. The note with nothing more than her name on
it and her room number meant a lot to me. It meant she wanted to make certain I knew she was interested in me.
After all, I knew her name and room number very well.
“I attended the theater again the next evening. I watched her on the stage and was amazed, not so much by her
performance, but by her beauty. From the balcony chair where I always sat she was perfection come to life. After the
show I stood outside the hotel and waited for her to return. I knew she would be in town only one more night after
this and then she would be on her way to Atlanta with the rest of her company for three nights of performances
there. Then she would be heading back to New York. I had to make my intentions known to her quickly. After all
there is no telling how long it might be before her company came through Abbeville again.
“I saw her approach the hotel as I stood outside the entrance. It was getting late and beginning to rain lightly. I
could hear the ominous sound of thunder in the distance as I stood there. The thunder sounded much like it does
tonight. I could almost hear my own heart beat over the rain, because it was pounding so fast and I thought it was
going to break my chest. It took nerve for a black man to openly speak to a white woman in those days, especially
outside of a hotel, all the while surrounded by other members of the cast. Fortunately for me, folks from New York
City are more progressive and I don’t just mean fiscally. She openly spoke to me. ‘Good evening Abraham.’ My heart
felt as though it would burst and I felt sweat break out on my forehead beneath the light mist of rain that was
covering my face. ‘Would you care to buy a lady a drink?’ she asked. ‘I have some very good cognac in my room,’ I
replied. “I was in utter shock at her offer.” ‘Splendid!’ she said, “with the smile of a schoolgirl who was in the mood
to get a bit naughty.
“I escorted Katie to my room, took her cloak and poured us both a drink in my finest glasses, my only glasses with
the exception of a few tumblers. Katie in the mean time made herself comfortable on the settee. I was delighted that
she took a place on the settee instead of my over stuffed chair, which would only accommodate one person. I
handed her a cognac and sat to her left. As we sipped our drinks she first asked about me and as quickly as I could I
started asking her to tell me more about herself. I was far too enamored to coherently talk about myself at this
point. I wanted to know everything about this woman in the white dress sitting next to me. I wanted to know her in
the biblical sense of course, but more importantly, I wanted to truly know her.
“We talked until the wee hours of the morning. Finally when we were both tipsy and tired of talking, she leaned
forward. I did the same and our lips met for the first time. The feeling was magic. It was like the wings of butterflies
fluttering against me. We continued kissing until we were overcome, and when the point of no return came to pass,
we had no intention of stopping.
“After we made love, she slipped back to her room just before dawn. On Saturday, her last full day in town, I served
her and the rest of her company breakfast and lunch. Such tasks were part of my job after-all. I attended her final
performance, of course. I sat in my usual seat on the second floor of the balcony. After her performance, she again
came to my room, after first going to her room and waiting for the others in the company to settle in for the night.
We made love late into the night. It was the last time we would see each other until her theater company made
their next trip through.
“So it was on a Sunday afternoon in that glorious May of 1908, I walked Katie to the train depot, which was on the
outskirts of town. She kissed me. I was taken by surprise and she could see that I was by the look on my face. ‘What
is the matter with you Abraham Jones?’ Katie asked. “If she could have seen the dirty looks we were getting from a
few of the locals standing nearby she would not have asked that question.
“She was about to leave, but I had to stay here with the people who were looking at us with such disdain. People
here just don’t think the same as people in New York City, and at this moment the sadness I was feeling about her
leaving became overshadowed by fear. ‘I’ll be back in only four months.’ Katie said with a smile. I was glad to hear
that, yet I still felt sad. ‘I do wish I could come with you, at least as far as Atlanta,’ I told her. I knew I could not be
spared from my duties at the Eureka and my bosses were kind to me, as well as generous, so I dare not ask more of
them. ‘Don’t give it a thought Abraham,’ Katie said.
“She got on the train and I watched it pull away from the depot. She leaned out the window waving to me. I was still
getting the dirty looks, but by then I didn’t care. My Katie was going away and I felt my world was going with her.”
“When the train rolled out of the depot and steamed out of sight, I wiped a single tear I felt stream down my cheek,
then I began the walk back to the Eureka hotel. As I walked I tried not to look at the men who were looking at me.
They were thoroughly disgusted at the site of the woman I had just fallen in love with kissing me. I wish you could
have seen that look. It was a look in their eyes of pure evil. Even in death I still see that look.
“I got back to the Eureka, went to my room and sat in this chair. I sipped my cognac, as I looked at the settee where
we kissed for the first time. I then starred at my empty bed. The first few sips of my favorite beverage brought yet
another tear or two; however, by my second helping of the cognac, a smile came. The kind of smile that a young man
at my age only gets when he is sure he is in love and that love would be reciprocated. The pain from the fact she
was gone for a while was easing and the joy of why I was sad she was gone came rushing in to take the place of
“The next evening, I began writing to Katie. I knew she was in Atlanta, but I could not wait to begin writing to her
anyway, so by the time she made it back to New York she had two letters from me waiting for her. She began writing
back to me immediately. I got some funny looks from the staff at the Eureka who handed me the letters as they
came. Since I never received letters before, I am sure it struck them as odd. At my request, she did not put a return
address on the envelopes. There was no need for a return address anyway since she had told me she was staying
with her mother and sister; she had given me their address. I never asked her, but I’ll bet her father who passed
away with tuberculosis—a disease then called the white plague—would turn over in his grave had he known she had
fallen in love with a black man. White plague indeed I thought, and could not help but to laugh out loud at the irony
as gruesome as that must sound.
“I was amazed at how quickly our love for each other happened. Back in those days, love—it seems to me—came
more quickly. There were not as many distractions. We had no television in those days. There were radios in some
rooms at the Eureka. Guests and staff in the lobby listened to The Chase and Sanborn Hour and The Nation, but
there were not a lot of radio shows to choose from. We had books, live stage entertainment with the shows and
plays at the Opera House next door, but I think mostly it is because we had the—now almost lost—art of
conversation to move things along when courting. At least I had the art of conversation working for Katie and me.
That and some damn good cognac. And so we expressed our hopes, dreams and desires to each other by mail until
the afternoon in early September when the same train that had taken her away returned her to me.
“This time our meeting was quite different. My joy of seeing her quickly turned to concern when I saw how ill she
appeared. Her skin felt cold and clammy and she was running a high fever. She had fallen ill prior to leaving and had
gotten worse on the train while traveling. The Eureka arranged for an automobile to pick us up at the depot and
drive us back to the hotel. I was relieved when an automobile was provided. I begged Katie to go to the hospital,
but she would not hear of it.
“‘I’ll probably be better by morning,’ she said insistently. Whatever you want to do sweetie, I replied.”
“I only whispered that term of endearment, but the driver heard it, and looked at us very strangely. It was just our
luck to get an old man who still had good hearing to drive us.”
“When we finally got back to the Eureka, I helped Katie to her room, and laid her on the bed. She was burning up
with fever by this time and I thought it was best to call the doctor in. She was certainly not going to perform tonight
that much was certain.”
“Doctor Mark Sanders came to Katie’s bedside early that evening. He examined her, shook his head and said, ‘I’m
afraid with the fever, the nausea, the stomach cramps, the eruption of red spots on the chest and level of
dehydration she has it looks like Typhoid fever.’ The doctor explained the disease as an, ‘often-fatal bacterial
infection, which causes severe intestinal irritation. Bad water, or perhaps Salmonella from tainted food, is most likely
where she got it,’ the doctor went on to explain. ‘Of course I can’t guarantee it is Typhoid fever, but it certainly looks
“‘I do not have Typhoid fever,’ Katie shouted.”
“The doctor suggested she be taken to a hospital. Anderson was the closest one that could treat her and it about
twenty miles away, give or take. Katie begged the doctor to let her stay where she was. The doctor reluctantly
agreed, but insisted she go to the hospital the next morning. I asked for just a few moments with her alone. The
doctor nodded in agreement. The others with her New York Company followed the doctor out of her room and waited
in the corridor.
“‘I love you Katie Hawkins so much,’ I said.”
“‘I love you very much too.’ Katie replied.”
“‘I can’t stand the idea of you not getting better Katie,’ I told her.”
“‘I’ll just have to get better for you then,’ she replied forcing a smile.”
“The doctor and the others from her company knocked gently on the door. I of course asked them to come in.”
“Doctor Sanders looked at me and said, ‘Why don’t you go and get yourself some sleep young man?’”
“Katie looked at me and said, ‘Please take him up on his suggestion Abraham. I need to sleep too.’”
“‘I’ll do just that, and I’ll see you in the morning Miss Hawkins,’”
“By now Katie was sleeping, the doctor slipped a little something in the I.V. drip he started. I looked at her and got a
bad feeling all over. I left the room before someone saw me cry. Somehow I believed Katie would not make it
through the night. I walked and prayed for her recovery and then I walked and prayed some more. I thought, what if
she doesn’t make it? It just isn’t fair. I have never loved a woman like this before.
“I did a lot of walking that night. There would be no sleep for me. I wanted to leave the cognac alone, even though I
could really have used a drink, or ten of my favorite beverage. The fact is I wanted to be sober, wide-awake and
completely lucid for Katie.”
“I walked back to the town square and was just outside the Opera House, almost to the Eureka hotel where a man
with a menacing grin approached me. I decided to turn around and walk the opposite direction, by another man was
approaching me. Four others approached me, two on either side, to my left and my right. I turned around again to
face the first man I saw.
“You are going to pay dearly tonight for messing around with that white woman and it looks like God is going to give
her what she deserves for messing around with you. She’s lucky she came back into town sick.”
“I tried to speak, but a man grabbed my face from behind covering my mouth and nose. I could not breathe. The men
on either side of me held my arms and they were all so close to me I could not kick at them. The man standing in
front of me swung his right arm; his hawk’s bill knife sliced my throat. One of the last things I saw was my own blood
shooting forcefully into his face. He then quickly slashed my belly. The cold steel went into my abdomen and I could
feel my intestines spilling out and hitting the cool air. The men let go of me. I could not scream, cry, or make any
sound at all. The last sounds I heard was their laughter and the sound of my dying body hitting the cold cobblestone
covered street in front of the opera house.
“I probably died quickly, but my last moment alive seemed to go on for a lifetime. I have heard people say that when
you die, your entire life passes before your eyes in an instant. Well that is true except it is not in an instant. It is an
ocean of time, which encapsulates the moments of your life from your earliest childhood memories to your most
recent. My fondest memories are certainly not of my impoverished childhood, nor do I favor the memories of my
adolescence, or even my early adulthood. My fondest memories are sitting in my favorite chair in that theater
balcony. That chair is where I often am today. It is my happy place. I never missed a show that season except for the
night my Katie slipped away and I seldom miss a show even to this day. I sit and find I am as entertained as the
night I first laid eyes on my beloved Katie. She is often in my room at what is now called the Belmont Inn. Katie likes
to sit among the crowd during performances wearing her beautiful white dress and sometimes she stands next to
me in the balcony. She is known to applaud during rehearsals if she is moved to do so. I now have an eternity with
my beloved, this hotel, the Opera House with its beautiful balcony and on that balcony the single chair they leave for
me to this day.
“Is there anything I can do for you Abraham?” I asked.
I have learned from my research an important fact; ghosts do not leave the place they haunt until things left undone
“Just one favor,” he replied.
Abraham looked at me and told me what he wanted.
“Tell our story Ben, the story of Katie and me. The men who murdered me never paid for their crimes in life. They are
paying now I’m quite sure. I want the world to know our story in the hope such a crime of ignorance and hate may
not be repeated. We have grown tired of haunting this place, Katie and me, to prove to the world we were once
here. I am tired of trying to tell the world I was once a man, a human being who was murdered. Please, tell the
world for me, so that I may leave this chair empty and so we can at last cross over through the light of everlasting
Sleep did not come for me at all that night. I could hardly wait to get back to Greenville to write the story. It was
after-all, now up to me to give Abraham and Katie the closure they needed to move on. I finished the story and then
wrote the story as a play.
One year later, I returned to the Belmont Inn. This time the room was quiet and I felt no ghostly presence. After
freshening up, I attended the opening night of the play called, The Empty Chair where the story of Abraham and
Katie was told on the stage, just as Abraham told it to me. The actors gave a wonderful performance. There was
hardly a dry eye in the house when the curtain closed. Somehow I know Abraham and Katie are now satisfied. Their
story is now told.
“Goodbye Abraham. Goodbye Katie.” I said aloud as I wiped my own eyes during the applause.