Last Man on State Street

The Search for Mobile’s Pipe-Smoking Sea Captain

Sculpture of the captain looking at the ocean.

In 2021, Halloween fell on a Sunday, bestowing a perfect lazy afternoon to finally read the iconic 1969 book, “13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey” by Kathryn Tucker Windham and Margaret Gillis Figh. It was then I first encountered the story of “Mobile’s Pipe-Smoking Sea Captain.”

As Windham and Figh tell it, the old sea captain was a loner who often walked from his home on State Street to the Downtown docks, always smoking his pipe and wearing his cap. He was “silent and withdrawn,” avoided his neighbors, and found happiness only at the water’s edge. His life ended in suicide when he shot himself at the top of the stairs in his two-story house. Years later, Charles Smallwood bought the property, and his son, William, moved into the house with his wife and children. Mrs. William Smallwood reported smelling tobacco from the captain’s pipe, hearing the echo of his body tumbling down the stairs and even seeing his image appear on the grounds.

But the captain is unnamed in the story and the address unspecified. So, which house on State Street? Who lives there now? Is the property still haunted? Is the captain’s story still told? Where are the Smallwood descendants? And who was this sea captain?

This last question feels the most pressing, for though the captain “bears a look of trapped agony in his eyes,” and grows increasingly “gaunt” in the story, his neighbors snub him for being unfriendly. So the captain is alone, blamed for his discontent, finding solace solely in the ships on the water, until he just can’t do it anymore. I want to be able to call his name. To say into the sweet, weighty air on State Street: “I see you.” 

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Start with Deeds  and Property

If I can figure out the State Street property address, and who lived there before the Smallwoods, then confirm he was a sea captain, I figure I’ll have my ghost. A search at the probate court turns up a single paragraph from a 1919 deed when the property passed from William and Eugenia Smallwood to Union Savings Bank. Though it lacks an address, the property lines are described down to feet and inches: “That certain lot of land in the city of Mobile, commencing at a point on the south side of State Street 110 feet west from the southwest corner of…” until it ends “140 feet more or less to the place of beginning.” So I can follow it. Like a treasure map.

Under blue skies and through empty midmorning streets, I drive to the right block, where four small houses now sit on a quiet, tucked-away stretch of State Street less than a mile from Downtown. The Smallwood property could be under any of these. I race home to print out a map zoomed to 20 feet, make hash marks along a paper’s edge, then read the deed’s directions aloud, measuring and tracing out a rectangle that perfectly surrounds the corner house. I have the address. There is no doubt. With help from Sam Winter and Surety Land Title, I get a list of all the property owners dating back to 1814. So now all I have to do is figure out which one (before the Smallwoods) was a sea captain. Easy, right?

Find The Family

man and woman posing for a photograph in 1896
William and Eugenia Smallwood, circa 1896. Photos courtesy the Smallwood Family.

In the meantime, I want to find a Smallwood descendant to see if there are other stories about the captain and whether the story was passed down through the Smallwood generations. After a tedious genealogical search, I locate William and Eugenia’s great-granddaughter, Mimi, and am delighted (and shocked) when she messages back: “I would love to talk to you about my great-grandparents! My grandmother shared many stories about growing up in a haunted house on State Street.” So, the story of the sea captain has a life beyond Windham and Figh. It has legs. Or, rather, sea legs.

By the time I sit down with Mimi and her daughter, Beth, I’ve spent several mornings deep in city directories at the Mobile Public Library. I know that William Smallwood lived at the State Street house from 1883 until roughly 1916, beginning with his first wife, Sallie, until she died in 1894, then with his second wife, Eugenia. 

It was Eugenia who told the haunting captain story to Ila B. Prine, a Works Progress Administration interviewer, in 1936. Prine’s write-up, entitled “The Haunted House of State Street,” consists of a single typed and yellowed page, housed at the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery and included in Alan Brown’s book, “The Face in the Window and other Alabama Ghostlore.” The account gives the property address as 1055 State Street (though that is not the address today) and contains the main elements of Windham and Figh’s 1969 version, but in less detail. Perhaps Windham and Figh heard a more complete version from Mobilians or simply embellished it, as Southern storytellers tend to do.

Regardless, in “The Haunted House of State Street,” Eugenia Smallwood recounts the story of the captain’s suicide and fall down the stairs. She reports having seen him “many times” walking the grounds, often “in the late afternoons or on a dreary, dismal day” and “always wearing a cap and smoking a small pipe.” On several occasions, she smelled tobacco and thought it was her sons smoking, but when she went to catch them, found no one there. Also, “a number of times, her cook would come running into the house badly frightened” after seeing the captain at the kitchen door.

Mimi heard about the smoke and the stairs from her grandmother, Pansey, Eugenia’s daughter, who grew up in the State Street house alongside her siblings. The cook in the story, Mimi says, is undoubtedly, “Aunt Emma,” a Black woman who cared for the Smallwood children. Beth shows me a stunning photograph of Emma with the children and, later, I try desperately to learn more about her, but fail. It’s a harsh reminder of how sparsely Black lives were documented. Emma’s gaze still holds me; I’m still restless to do better by her.

The Smallwoods with Aunt Emma, circa 1901. Photos courtesy the Smallwood Family.
The Smallwoods with Aunt Emma, circa 1901. Photos courtesy the Smallwood Family.

Mimi tells me Pansey was a natural-born storyteller and singer who loved to take her grandchildren soft-shelling and floundering, with lanterns and gigs and a basket in an inner tube. She lived to be 100 and Mimi loved her fiercely. Of the many stories Pansey told, Mimi recalls only one that adds to the captain’s lore:

“A horse got loose one day and went bolting down State Street,” she begins. “My grandmother was real little and she was playing in the street. Everybody was running for safety and she just stood there. After the horse went by, she was on the other side of the fence. And bystanders asked her, ‘Pansey, how did you get here?’ And she said, ‘The captain.’ They believed that the captain picked her up and saved her and put her over the fence ‘cause she was too young to open it or run or anything.”

It seems the captain was a protective force, though Mimi recalls he was always described as sad, longing or maybe heartbroken. He was said to stand by the window and gaze out, she says. He was connected to ships somehow. But who was he? 

One by one, I check the State Street property owners and discover attorneys, cotton merchants, a judge, a clerk, a secretary, a teacher. No sea captain. These were men wealthy enough to own land as an investment; none appear to have lived on it. And each time an owner sells, his name appears on the deed. The property is never sold by a widow or son or cousin, as it would be following a death. That is, until Richard Wildman, who bought the property in 1870 and is the first owner to live on it. Twelve years later, Wildman’s widow sells it to Charles Smallwood. But, Wildman was a pharmacist, not a sea captain. What am I missing?

Backyard Mystery

In the meantime, I’ve sent an undeniably weird letter to the current owner of the State Street property and am certain I will never hear back.

But then I do. 

He agrees to meet me at Walgreens, a busy, public place, in case I am a “crackpot” he tells me later. Understandable. 

George is a short, strapping Black man in his mid-60s who walks with a cane since being injured on the job. He spent a career working on the state docks. He and his late wife raised 12 children in the house on State Street. He has kind eyes, an open, friendly face and a calm demeanor. We find two empty chairs near the pharmacy and settle in. He lets me record but says he’s hesitant to talk about this stuff since he still lives in the haunted house. Then he launches right in.

George was born in 1955 and raised by his grandparents across from the State Street house. At that time, it was inhabited by Ms. Nancy and her late husband’s brother, Mr. Joe, who resembled the captain in his gruff attitude, preference for solitude and shock of white hair. According to George, Nancy and Joe were Creole, originally from Mon Louis Island. (I did verify their names in the property records). They kept a tall fence around the backyard that prevented anyone from seeing in. The neighbors could glimpse the tops of pecan trees, mulberries, figs and pears, “but all of that stuff would rot because she wouldn’t let nobody back there to pick it,” George says. “If your ball went over that fence, that was it.”

As a child, George heard the story of the smoking captain from the old folks on the block. “The talk in the neighborhood was ‘watch the man with the pipe in his mouth,’” he says. “‘Watch the man with the white hair.’ But you’re a child, you think old people are just telling you stuff to keep you off their property. People in the neighborhood used to say, ‘Don’t go in that yard. Don’t go over there after dark.’ They just told me to stay away from there. There was something weird about that backyard ‘cause we questioned it: ‘Why we can’t get our ball?’”

George doesn’t know whether Nancy’s protection of the yard had to do with the captain, but he does know the stories about the captain appearing back there. There was a beautiful old pecan tree in the yard with a chair beneath it, where the old folks said the captain liked to sit and drink coffee. George recalls the captain was said to be grumpy. He doesn’t remember stories about smelling tobacco but points out there was always smoke in the air anyway: burning trash or burning rags to keep mosquitoes at bay. But George did have a strange feeling about the yard. And sometimes, especially in the early morning when he watched his grandfather leave for his job at Smith Bakery, something near the yard would catch the corner of his eye. 

The captain’s staying power surprised me. The Smallwoods left in 1916 and, in the ensuing decades, this section of State Street transformed from a wealthy white block to a working-class Black neighborhood, yet the tale of the captain remained. The talk in the next generation, however, was clipped and vague, in deference to their Christian faith. “They would give you a warning” about the ghost, George says, but that was it. “If Grandmama and Granddaddy did know something or saw something, they wouldn’t just say it out. They were very conservative people. My grandmother slept with the Bible. Shew, Lord.” 

After Nancy died and Joe moved to a nursing home in the late 1960s, George’s family bought the State Street house and moved in. And when they finally saw the backyard, they were shocked. Despite Nancy and Joe’s old age, and never seeing a yard man there, it was perfectly kept. “You wouldn’t believe it. We never saw the yard mowed. Never heard nobody cutting that backyard,” George says. “But that backyard was immaculate. It was like somebody kept it up every day. It was just beautiful.” And at the foot of the back steps, in a neat little pile: 12 baseballs.

Now that George has lived in the State Street house for over 50 years, he has experienced the captain for himself. “I hear stuff all night long. All night long. And that’s God’s truth. Clickin’, bumpin’.” There’s been lots of wind blowing through the house, doors banging. In particular, the door from the kitchen to the backyard blows open even when locked. When George’s children were small, they would ask why he came through their room at night, why he’d left the door open, when he hadn’t. “It’s those kinds of things,” he tells me. “No one walked up to me or offered me a cup of coffee or wrote their name or nothing like that. But it’s strange. You know how old folks drags their foots when they walk? I hear that kind of stuff all night long. I mean, I really can’t sleep some nights. It’s just strange.”

And then there’s the backyard, especially the site of the pecan tree and the old chair, which rendered George quiet and pensive in his youth. “There was something about that little spot there. Even as a child I used to sit back there and just think,” he says, adding, “No squirrels would build their nests in that tree. Even though they’d build them in every other tree in the yard, and birds, too. They wouldn’t build in that tree.” George bred dogs for many years and “those dogs would just go completely crazy” in that spot. “There would be nothing there, but they would be carrying on.” It reminded him of how his grandmama used to say that dogs can see spirits. “That would come into my mind. They must be seeing spirits.” And George saw the captain back there himself. “I’m telling you the truth. I know in my lifetime, I’ve seen this man in the backyard. It wasn’t no flower like a ghost. It was just like somebody runnin’ in the backyard. And I see things out of the corner of my eye, too. That happens a lot.”

After our talk at Walgreens, George invites me for a visit. So the next week, I pull up to the house I’ve wondered so much about. It’s midday in mid-December and the temperature has dropped; we both wear winter hats. George unlocks the gate and we step into the backyard. It’s abundantly green and overgrown, quiet. Remnants of the dogs’ houses sit along the edges. Even without the tall fence of Nancy and Joe’s day, the yard feels cut off, but not in a creepy way. It feels pleasant. George points out the site of the pecan tree, which weathered Hurricane Frederic in 1979 (though the storm destroyed every other tree in the yard) but was felled by Hurricane Georges in 1998. With his cane, George traces the trail that used to run from the tree to the kitchen door, though no one in his family ever walked that path.

He shows me the kitchen, the site of the window where he’d catch Ms. Nancy talking to nobody when he’d come to run an errand for her (usually buying snuff for a nickel) and the door that kept blowing open. After George’s family moved in, his grandfather lowered the roof twice to make the house warmer. “There’s stuff up in that attic I’ve never seen,” George says, and we both look up, wondering. 

Clues at the Library

One last time, back to the captain. Back to the library, where I learn that although Richard Wildman bought the State Street property in 1870, he only lived there until 1872 when he moved Downtown to run the pharmacy and live above it. After Charles Smallwood bought the property in 1882, his son, William, lived there beginning in 1883. So who lived in the house from 1872 to 1882? Could Wildman have rented it to the captain? I plug those years into along with the strange format of the address at that time (comprised of numbers and letters referring to intersections and cardinal directions).

And. There he is.

Henry Taylor.

Lived at the State Street address in 1873. And his occupation: Captain Steamboat.

Henry Taylor!

Mystifying Mobile

To be honest, there is no way to know for sure whether Henry Taylor is the pipe-smoking sea captain. I’m not able to verify his death or anything else about him. He appears just that once, in the Mobile City Directory in 1873, then vanishes. By 1876, Robert Warner (a carpenter) lives at the State Street address. And what to make (if anything) of Taylor being a steamboat captain instead of a sea captain? 

As thrilling as it was to discover Henry Taylor, the real treasure was finding George, the last man in Mobile who remembers how the sea captain story was told on State Street. None of his neighbors from that time still live on the block; most of the houses are rentals now. “Who else would know this stuff?” I asked at the end of our interview, but he shook his head. “Nobody. Everything was left to me.”

Before I leave, George and I walk the block and he talks of how the area was once used as a camp for Confederate soldiers. How locals still call a nearby cross street “Elephant Road” because it was used to unload elephants on their way to the circus. Standing on State Street with George is both ordinary and extraordinary at once. To see him is to be reminded of what I love most about Mobile: teeming with history still very much alive; reveling in the unexplored and unexplained lurking in regular places; multidimensional, laid back, generous.

And as for you, Captain Henry Taylor, or whatever your name may be, I see you, too.

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