The Sword Gates House – The Spirit of Madame Talvande

The Famous Sword Gates (Century21 Properties)

Several blocks from the busy commercial section of Charleston’s historic district, you can stroll through the residential streets and enjoy all of the charm and antebellum architecture the Holy City has to offer.  If you’re fortunate and have the means to purchase one of those historical properties, you may encounter a previous occupant who refuses to leave.

The house at 32 Legare Street (pronounced “Lugree”), also known as the Sword Gates House, is a perfect example.  This U-shaped, private residence was built in multiple stages in the early 19th century by German merchants, Jacob Steinmetz and Paul Emil Lorent. The central part of the house, which is a three-story structure that is one-room wide, was built around 1803.  By 1818, Steinmetz and Lorent had added a brick wing that included an elegant ballroom, and a separate kitchen house.  The famous gates of the house, made of wrought iron by the well-known iron manufacturer, Christopher Werner, are a rare find in Charleston, as most of the pre-Civil War iron was melted for artillery.

The Sword Gates by Christopher Werner (Scares and Haunts of Charleston, 2012)

In 1819, the property was sold to André (now known as Andrew) Talvande.  Talvande and his wife, Ann, were French colonial refugees who relocated from Saint-Domingue after its revolution.  Shortly after, Ann Talvande opened Madame Talvande’s French School for Young Ladies.  Affluent families sent their daughters to the exclusive school for a solid education and, more importantly, instruction from its strict headmistress on proper behavior for a lady.  Ann Talvande was a fierce ally to the aristocratic families of Charleston, and they came to rely on her for the social growth of their daughters.  Many girls walked the halls of the school, including Mary Boykin Chesnut, one of South Carolina’s most well-known authors.

In the 1820s, Colonel Joseph Whaley was a wealthy plantation owner on Edisto Island, a sea island just south of Charleston.  His beautiful fifteen-year-old daughter, Maria, was sometimes lonely at Pine Baron, their plantation.  She had few friends her own age.  But as she entered her teen years, she had her share of suitors, though none were serious.  None, that is, until she met George Morris.

Morris was from New York.  He was a nice enough young man, but Col. Whaley still didn’t want his daughter seeing him.  It wasn’t because he was a Yankee—this was decades before the ill-sentiment for Northerners was prevalent in the Lowcountry.  It’s true that Charlestonians didn’t like Northerners.  But they didn’t like other Southerners either.  Col. Whaley’s dislike for George Morris was two-fold.  First, he just wasn’t “one of them.”  He wasn’t as affluent as the Whaleys, and that alone would have given a wealthy planter like Joseph Whaley serious pause.  More importantly, it was Maria’s reaction to Morris that scared her father.  Her eyes lit up when she saw him.  She was falling deeply in love, and Mr. Whaley knew it.  Though he tried over and over to keep the pair separated—even going so far as to ride his horse all over Edisto in an effort to persuade everyone to refuse Morris lodging—Maria and George always found a way to be together.  In 1828, Col. Whaley had had enough.  He ordered his daughter to pack her bags, and he, with this wife, drove Maria by carriage the 30 miles to Madame Talvande’s school.

Madame Talvande kept a close eye on all of her girls.  But she also recognized the importance of exposing the young ladies to Charleston’s high society so they could gain the experience and charm that would be expected of them.  Talvande sometimes held social gatherings and dances in the grand ballroom, where the girls could meet appropriate young men who were deemed eligible to court girls of such high social status.  But Maria, though she made friends easily and enjoyed her new studies, never forgot her true love, George Morris.  Within months, George found Maria, and they began to devise a plan for her escape.

On March 8, 1829, Maria scaled the high walls surrounding the school, and ran the few blocks to St. Michael’s Church at Broad and Meeting Streets.  With only two witnesses, Reverend Frederick Dalcho officiated, and Maria Whaley and George Morris were wed.  Maria returned to Madame Talvande’s school, sneaking back over the wall, and into bed.  The next morning, George Morris went to the school and announced to Madame Talvande that he was there to pick up “Mrs. Morris.”  Talvande, obviously confused, told Morris that she was the only married woman at the school, but George was undeterred.  Talvande lined the girls up on the lawn, and introduced George Morris.  She said, “He is here for his wife.  Is there a Mrs. Morris present among us?”  At first, the girls just looked at each other.  Then, Maria Whaley stepped forward and said, simply, “Yes.  I am.”

Maria and George then went to back to Edisto to break the news to the Colonel.  He was understandably furious at first, but grew to love his new son-in-law, and welcomed him into the family.  George and Maria apparently lived happily ever after on Grove Plantation.

Madame Talvande didn’t fare so well.  She was humiliated, and the public began to question her ability to keep the girls in line.  It’s said that she constructed a high wall topped with broken glass bottles to deter other students who may have had similar plans for escape.  In time, the people of Charleston forgave her, but she never forgave herself.  The school remained open until 1849, and even though there were no other scandals, she believed her reputation was damaged forever.

It has been widely reported that Madame Talvande still roams the halls of the house at 32 Legare Street, now a private residence.  Full-body apparitions have been seen on the top-floor piazza, scanning the grounds for would-be escapists.  The spirit has also been seen floating along the upstairs hallways, peering into the bedrooms and keeping a watchful eye on her charges from long ago.

True?  You’ll have to see for yourself.  The property is currently for sale.  How much will it cost for this piece of haunted history?  A cool $23 million.  A steep price for most of us, to be sure.  But the property is undeniably beautiful.  This 9 bedroom/14 bathroom home includes a drawing room, a master study, a ballroom, a library, two dining rooms, a commercial kitchen, a fitness room, a gift wrapping room, a wine cellar, quarters for house staff…and much more.

All House Pictures:
Century21 Properties. (n.d.). 32 legare street. Retrieved from http://www.century21properties.idxco.com/idx/8809/photoGallery.php?idxID=146&listingID=1128118

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~ by scareschs on May 24, 2012.

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