BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Twelve years ago, Edward Wolfgang Poe returned to Birmingham to provide the city with something it didn’t have.
After working for nearly 30 years as a chef in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Poe found himself at a crossroads when the restaurant closed. Jobless, he decided to move back to the Magic City and start from scratch.
“I remember just moping around because I can’t find a job, and I finally was like ‘I’ll just do something fun,’” he said.
That “something fun” was later revealed as the Birmingham Historic Touring Company. The city’s first guided tour dedicated to telling its history.
Poe, who always wanted to be a history teacher, said he “locked himself in the library” for months digging through archives and old newspapers learning everything he could about Birmingham.
Some of the stories that Poe came across in his research are the reason he created the Birmingham Ghost Walk, one of the tours the company hosts, that highlights the spookier part of the city’s history.
“There are several places where you can sort of feel the weight of history,” Poe said as he recalled the time a tour goer refused to go near one of the locations, citing that it just felt “evil.”
The Ghost Walk is a two-hour long tour that features several historic buildings that you may walk past every day, but just not know the dark history behind.
Popular buildings like the Redmont Hotel, where Poe claimed the spirit of country singer Hank Williams Sr. still roams the building. The Redmont is said to be the last place Williams was seen alive. After staying in a room in 1952, Williams was loaded into a car the next morning and found dead in the backseat after the driver stopped to get gas.
“Ever since then, people have seen a tall figure in a white cowboy outfit in the halls of the Redmont,” Poe said. “People who have done EVP (electronic voice phenomena) sessions have picked up a scratchy voice that says things like ‘get out’ and people have reported hearing bits and pieces of Williams’ songs, along with a disembodied voice saying ‘ol Hank’.”
Williams is just one of several entities that guests at the hotel have reported having interactions with. Other stories are centered around a hotel manager in the 1940s who was often physically abusive toward his staff if things weren’t to his liking.
Clifford Stiles, who built a penthouse at the top of the hotel that is now known as “The Roof,” is said to still terrorize housekeepers by pulling sheets off the beds or dumping all of the toiletries into the floor if rooms aren’t in perfect condition. Still, years later, expressing his dissatisfaction, this time without a body.
A quick walk will land you in a dark alley, across from the YMCA downtown. In this particular alley several people were allegedly murdered in the early 1900s by Birmingham’s version of Jack the Ripper– Harry the Hacker, whose name is etched in the sidewalk alongside an axe, his weapon of choice most of the time.
Harry’s identity was never revealed, as he was only known by his dark clothing and hat. If you’re brave enough to go down the alley and snap a photo, Harry’s hat may just show up, as it has several times in group photos from Poe’s tours.
These are just two stops on the Birmingham Ghost Walk that are sure to leave you feeling a little uneasy. Tour guide and self-proclaimed skeptic, David, has been with the company for five years and said that he has moments during these tours where even he feels spooked.
During a stop on the tour at a building that used to be the Jefferson County Jail in the 1800s, David said he was telling the story of the Hawes family, when he noticed the only people on the tour that night was a family of five. A man, his wife, their son, and two daughters.
In 1888, then Georgia-Pacific engineer Richard Hawes, murdered his wife and their two young daughters. The son, who had been living with a family member in Atlanta at the time of the murders was unharmed.
The body of Hawes’ 7-year-old daughter, May, was found in East Lake by boaters in the area.
Days later, Birmingham Police launched a search for Hawes’ wife, Emma, and their 6-year-old daughter, Irene. The two bodies were found 30 feet away from each other after authorities drained the lake at Lakeview Park, which is now the Highland Park Golf Course. Hawes had weighed their bodies down with iron.
“I wanted to tear my own heart out, because I’m having to tell this story to them and there they are fitting these descriptions,” David said. “Before I could start talking about anything else, I had to take a minute.”
As news of the murders spread across Birmingham, a huge mob showed up at the jail. The sheriff at the time, Joseph S. Smith, ordered his men to fire into the crowd if the rioters got too close to the jail. Ten people died in the riot.
On May 3, 1889, Richard Hawes was sentenced to death for the murder of his wife and two daughters. Hawes died by hanging on February 28, 1890. Emma, Irene and May were all buried next to each other in unmarked graves in Birmingham’s Oak Hill cemetery.
Edward Poe makes it a point to tell his tour-goers that not all old buildings in Birmingham are haunted… but most are.
“The general rule of thumb is if you live in a house that was built before 1940, somebody probably died there,” he said.
Poe and his team are constantly researching and finding new stories to tell in hopes of informing the public of Birmingham’s chilling past.
There are plenty of interesting stories, but Poe said he won’t dare tell a story until he can confirm all of the details. One of the things that helps his company continue to thrive.
Poe plans to welcome new locations to his tours and an actual “ghost hunting” element, that allows tour-goes to communicate with spirits, by next year. Until then, you can enjoy several different tours hosted year-round by the company that cover Birmingham’s haunted hotels, churches, theatres, and dark alleys.
Less spooky, and strictly historical tour options are also available and cover the 1963 Civil Rights experience, building architecture, and even food.
To book your walking or driving tour with Wolfgang and the Birmingham Historic Touring Company crew, click here.