Sturdivant Hall was built between 1852 and 1856 for Col. Edward T. Watts. The Greek Revival mansion was designed by architect Thomas Helm Lee, a Selma resident and cousin of Robert E. Lee. The plaster and iron work was done by Italian artists and craftsmen. Colonel Watts lived in the house until 1864, when he moved his family to Texas. The mansion was purchased by John McGee Parkman, who paid $465,000 for it on February 12, 1864. He was president of the First National Bank of Selma when Reconstruction came to Alabama. In 1867, Parkman was accused by the military governor of Alabama, Wager Swayne, of embezzling Federal funds that had been deposited in the bank.
According to Alabama folklorist Kathryn Tucker Windham, author of 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey (1969), Parkman was imprisoned in Castle Morgan in Cahaba. Several of Parkman’s friends, who believed that he should not have been incarcerated for making bad business decisions, con- cocted an elaborate scheme to free him. On May 23, 1867, they held an impromptu parade in front of the jail to distract the jailers. While the guards were watching the jugglers and singers, Parkman sneaked out. After a few minutes, the jailers pursued Parkman to the riverbank near the Cahaba wharf, where a steamboat was waiting for him. The circumstances of Parkman’s death are unclear. Some say that he was shot as he dove into the Cahaba River. Others say that soon after entered the water, he was crushed by the paddle of the steamboat. Some believe that Parkman’s friends killed him to prevent him from revealing their involvement in the botched escape. Only a few residents of Selma believe that Parkman made his way to freedom.
The mansion changed hands in January 1870 when a Selma merchant named Emile Gillman purchased it for $12,000. The house remained in the Gillman family until 1957, when the city of Selma bought it for $75,000. The purchase was made with the help of a $50,000 bequest from the estate of Robert Daniel Sturdivant, who wanted the family home to be converted into a house museum. Today, the city of Selma has the responsibility of maintaining the antebellum home.
The ten-room, 6,000-square-foot mansion is now run as a house museum. The docents of Sturdivant Hall say that it is haunted by a number of ghosts. The fullbody apparition of John McGee Parkman has been seen inside the house, mostly upstairs. He occasionally appears in his daughters’ bedroom. Visitors have sighted him up in the cupola, too. He has never been seen outside of the house. Longtime docent Pat Tate told me that most of the poltergeist-like activity in the mansion is blamed on Parkman’s ghost. Most of the time, she and other staff members heard him walking around upstairs. They also heard doors open and close on their own. On one occasion, the doors opened when a crowd of people was in the mansion. One night, a maid made the bed in one of rooms before she went home. The next morning, she was shocked to find the imprint of a body on the bed. Several people have seen flashes of light inside the house. When strange things happened, the staff would say, “Good evening, Mr. Parkman.” The activity usually stopped.
The ghost of John McGee Parkman may also be responsible for one of the most terrifying incidents that have occurred inside the house. One day, the Orkin man was spraying upstairs while the docents were downstairs. After a few minutes, he ran down the stairs. He said somebody pushed him, and he refused to go back up. He exited the mansion in such a hurry that he left all of his equipment behind.
One legend that seems to defy attempts to debunk it is the story of Parkman’s burial. “We have heard stories that he was buried in the scuppernong orchard in the back, but that’s not true,” Tate said. “There’s also a story that they never found Parkman’s body. That’s not true either. He is buried in Live Oak Cemetery.” For years, though, many people have insisted that Parkman is actually buried behind the house. An elderly man named Adolf, who worked at Sturdivant Hall in the 1950s, said that one time, his grandfather plowed in the back garden after the Parkmans left. “Adolf’s grandfather said that the mule would come to a [certain] place and would rare up and would not go forward,” Tate said. “And that was where Mr. Parkman had been buried. He was convinced that he was there. And when he worked here, he would never, never go out in that garden.”
The ghosts of the Parkmans’ children also make frequent appearances inside Sturdivant Hall. They are often sighted staring out of a window on the second floor. Tate told the story about such a sighting that occurred during a “Battle Ball” for a reenactment of the Battle of Selma. “They always had guards posted in the study so that children would not go upstairs, which were off-limits. Well, I noticed that one of the guards was missing, so when he came back, I questioned him, and he said that he had three people tell him that they had seen children upstairs looking out the window. And he had gone up to check, and there were no children.”
Tate also told the story of a sighting of the children that occurred in the late 1950s. “One of the commanders out at Maxwell Air Force Base came out here to meet somebody. They looked up, and they saw children standing in a widow of an upstairs room. They said they heard noises too. When they came in with their key, they went upstairs, and there was no one there.”
A ghost has been encountered in Sturdivant Hall much more recently. “Several months ago, we had a group of young people standing in the hall,” Tate said. “And we had a tremendous painting sitting on an easel. Nobody was standing near it, and it just jumped off and broke into a hundred pieces. The children could not be convinced that it was not Mr. Parkman who had knocked it off.”