Illustration by Steve Stegelin

Charleston is a modern, bustling city, but beyond the cafes and markets, strange things are lurking in the city’s darker corners — monsters!

From the creepy plat-eyes to a legendary mermaid tale, Charleston lore is rich in colorful stories of weird creatures.

Sightings of unusual things in the water at Charleston Harbor date back to at least 1830 when the schooner Eagle encountered a pair of sea serpents. The ship’s crew said the creatures were around 70 feet in length, eel-shaped and gray in color. 

The Eagle’s captain sailed within 20  yards to 25 yards of the monsters and then took a shot at one with a musket. The bullet struck the beast, but the creature was unfazed and continued to swim about with its companion. According to news reports, the serpents were covered in scales and had heads like alligators.

Learn about more Lowcountry monsters in Weatherly’s latest book

Modern boaters also spot strange things in the area. The late Michael Green was out enjoying the sunny weather in the summer of 2017 when he saw a large, serpent-like something swimming near his boat. Green, a longtime fisherman from Canada, said the creature was “at least 30 feet in length and unlike any creature known to be in the Atlantic.”

The captured mermaid

Perhaps the most dramatic story of a strange aquatic creature in Charleston is the tale of the captured mermaid. Stories of mermaids in the harbor date back to the city’s early days, but in 1867, one was caught and put on display, leading to a torrential deluge.  

According to the legend, the mermaid was put on display at Dr. Trott’s shop, a combination apothecary/oddities museum. The captured siren, or her relatives in the ocean, exerted vengeance on the city by calling forth flooding rains. 

The constant driving rain inundated the city day and night. Water came down through roofs and up through floorboards. The city was soon ankle-deep in water and mud. Sewers overflowed, dead rats floated in the mire and some streets were completely washed out.

Charleston has a lot of water creature mythology such as this rendering of a sea serpent known to sink ships | Illustrations by Sam Shearon

When people learned that an imprisoned mermaid could be responsible for the downpour, a mob formed and marched to Trott’s shop intending to storm the business and free the creature.

Several men, including some gentlemen and members selected from the mob, did a thorough search of Trott’s museum but could not locate the mermaid. Their task completed, the men stood on the roof of Trott’s building and announced their findings. 

“There is no mermaid here, upon our word of honor,” they reported. “Go to your homes and keep the peace or the army must be called upon to disperse you.”

Like magic, the moment the proclamation was made, the rain stopped. The stunned crowd drifted away enjoying the sudden sunshine and clear skies.

Whispered rumors claimed that in the moments before the mob’s arrival, Trott himself had released the mermaid back into the ocean. The good doctor reportedly sold his business and left the country. As for the mermaid, no one knows what became of her, but no one ever tried to capture one for display in Charleston again. 

The frogman 

In 1902, an even more bizarre creature was spotted in Colonial Lake, a tidal pond in Charleston. Reporters from the Newberry Herald and News spoke to a witness who said the thing was “half man, half frog and uttered strange and distressing cries.”

The 8-foot-long frogman had wide, protruding eyes, was covered in green scales from head to tail, and had a mouth filled with crooked fangs that it snapped together with a vicious click.

An area carpenter named J.H. Thompson told the paper: “I can’t imagine what it is, where it came from or whether it will ever show up again. But I’m entirely satisfied with the little knowledge I have of it. I wish I’d never seen it.”

Boo-Hags

Whether the story is fake news, folklore or the result of too much drink is hard to say, but the frogman is tame when compared with the Lowcountry legend of boo-hags.

Boo-hags are vampire-like creatures that attack their victims at night, draining them of energy on consecutive visits until the poor soul withers away. 

If being drained of energy isn’t creepy enough for you, consider this: Boo- hags are said to look like humans without skin, hence the creatures are red with bulging blue veins. A foul odor fills the room when they show up. An old horseshoe over the doorway is one way to protect yourself from the dreaded things.

Plat-eyes

Have your seen this wild, swampy female creature while walking near wetlands?

Boo-hags aren’t the only creatures that prowl around at night. Plat-eyes also roam the darkness in search of victims and are especially active during full moons. 

Plat-eyes have a single red eye “round as a plate” in the middle of their heads. You’d think this would make them easy to spot, but don’t count on that keeping you safe. 

Plat-eyes are shape-shifters able to assume numerous forms including that of a cat, dog, pig or other animal.

Plat-eyes can’t pull off a perfect transformation though. When they take another form, something is always off kilter. A plat-eye in the form of a dog might look like it’s been run over by a truck, for instance. Plat-eyes in these unsettling forms are prone to follow people to their homes and cause endless trouble. 

The creatures like to lurk around graveyards, swamps, woods, fields and less-developed areas. But if you’ve attracted their attention, they can also show up in your home. By some accounts, plat-eyes are the spirits of those who never received a proper burial. Other lore describes them as vengeful spirits. 

Whatever the case, many South Carolinians take them seriously and take steps to defend against the creatures. The Lord’s Prayer and gunpowder will keep you safe from plat-eyes, and the popular color haint blue painted on porches, doorways and windows also will ward them off. 

Of course, there’s always the advice from one elderly Charleston resident who told me: “Best way to avoid the plat-eyes — don’t get caught out after dark!”

READ MORE: David Weatherly is a writer who lives in Georgia. His new book, Palmetto State Monsters, is available for $19.95 at: EerieLights.com.


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Stay cool. Support City Paper.

City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.